Jackie Kerestine felt completely out of place at times over the last year while firmly planted on the North Texas bench, her leg swollen and wrapped in a brace.
Kerestine had played soccer for as long as she could remember and developed into a star along the way, leading Colleyville Heritage to the state title game and guiding North Texas to the NCAA tournament as a sophomore.
Kerestine will be back in her comfort zone today after taking a year off to recover from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the fourth game of last season. A Virginia Tech player crashed into Kerestine during the Wake Forest Invitational, ending her season.
“It feels like I’m at home again,” Kerestine said. “For the past 18 years all I’ve known is soccer. It was hard not playing for a year. That’s what’s comfortable. Sitting out was the worst thing I ever had to go through. I wanted to play, and knowing that it wasn’t my decision not to play made it worse. It was just taken away.”
Having Kerestine back in goal starting with its 7 p.m. season opener at home today against Texas Southern and a big match at 11 a.m. Sunday against Oregon State is one reason UNT is among the favorites to win the Conference USA title. UNT was picked to finish second behind Charlotte in the league’s preseason coaches poll, while sophomore forward Rachel Holden was named the league’s preseason player of the year.
UNT lost several key players, especially from a stout defense, but should have enough talent to reload after a 14-7-1 finish a year ago in its first season in the league.
“Offensively, we are going to be really strong,” UNT coach John Hedlund said. “We have a lot of weapons and a lot of speed.”
Holden scored 12 goals last season while Amber Haggerty added seven. Karla Pineda also returns after posting a team-best seven assists.
Texas transfer Marchelle Davis and Baylor transfer Kaylah Hunter will give UNT even more firepower.
UNT will depend on Kerestine to anchor its defense after the loss of several key defenders, including Kelsey Hodges, who was named C-USA defensive player of the year as a senior last fall.
“It will be a huge boost to get Jackie back,” Hedlund said. “She has looked really good. Her size, her reach and experience in goal are going to be a big part of our success this year. She is so tough to score on.”
Kerestine, who is 6-1, set a UNT record by allowing just 0.71 goals per game in 2011 before giving up 0.92 goals a game in her last full season in 2012.
Kerestine said she feels like her old self again. She was released to play in May and spent as much time as she could playing in pickup games.
“My knee is great,” Kerestine said. “It’s the same old, same old minus a big scar and a brace.”
Kerestine attributes her recovery largely to teammates, coaches and trainers who helped her along the way during what Hedlund could sense was a tough time for his star goalie.
“The girls were always encouraging,” Kerestine said. “They made me feel special and like I was a part of the team. They were the ones who told me I could come back. I didn’t believe it at first.”
Kerestine has fit right back in with the Mean Green over the last few weeks and is forming a bond with the defenders she will work with this year.
“Our defense is coming along great,” Kerestine said. “I told them from Day 1 that I am going to be on them, yelling at them and telling them exactly what to do. We have high standards and big shoes to fill in the back. They are all for it. They are doing very well.”
So is Kerestine, which is good news for UNT as it opens the season today.
“We are excited about Jackie and are glad that she is back and healthy,” Holden said. “Her rehab went well. She’s excited, the team is excited and John’s excited.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
The following is the North Texas soccer team’s 2014 schedule:
at Houston Baptist
Louisiana Tech *
Southern Mississippi *
at UTEP *
at Texas-San Antonio *
at Rice *
at Florida Atlantic *
at Florida International *
Old Dominion *
Western Kentucky *
The following is the North Texas soccer roster: