Samanthan Jehnings dribbles the ball against the Montana Grizzlies in the Montana Cup on Aug. 19, 2018.

USF Dons midfielder Samantha Jehnings having career year after five knee surgeries

University of San Francisco head women’s soccer coach Jim Millinder picked up his phone in April of 2014, to take a call from one of his most prized recruits, Samantha Jehnings.

A midfielder he’d snatched up early, before bigger schools like Georgetown caught on, Jehnings was an impetuous spark plug with a chip on her shoulder and creativity around the box.

But when Millinder answered, he heard crying on the line. Jehnings had just torn her left anterior cruciate ligament in her final club match. She feared it would ruin her chances to play on his team.

“I said, ‘Sage, don’t worry, you’ll be fine,'” Millinder recalled. “You’ve got a full scholarship still. Things are going to work out.’”

Five knee surgeries and two ACL tears later, Jehnings has missed two full collegiate seasons, but as a fifth-year redshirt junior, she’s the leading scorer on a Dons team on pace for one of its best seasons in more than a decade. On Friday, against Gonzaga, Jehnings and San Francisco will go for their 10th win in a season for just the second time since 2004.

“She’s got this, some kids just have it,” Millinder said. “They have this quality, a personality. Kids just gravitate towards her.”

That magnetism was a quality Jehnings had early on, but it was one she had to harness. Former teammate Halle Bissin — who rehabbed her own ACL tear alongside Jehnings as a senior — told Millinder that the impatient freshman could be one of the team’s leaders, down the road.

“I’d always thought Shay Jay would be such a good leader,”Bissin said. “People listen to her. She likes to talk, but she’s kind of got some ‘tude to her, you know? Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes, it’s a bad thing.”

Less than a month before Jehnings — then the incoming freshman — tore her first ACL, then-senior-to-be Bissin tore hers. They each were trying to shield a ball from an attacker when it happened. The two became rehab buddies — the young, high-energy rookie and the more measured veteran.

“I’d been around a while, before she got there, and Shannon [Murphy], our trainer, had been around a while and seen a lot of things,” Bissin said. “Say Jay was very quick to want to get back on the field, as would anybody … I was a bit more conservative in my attitude towards my rehab, and back-to-play protocol, where Say Jay was champing at the bit.”

Indeed, Jehnings sustained over-use injuries on her way back, and wore her frustration openly. When told, after nine months, that her knee brace would be delayed three more days, Jehnings — who as a senior in high school, had snapped her own broken nose back into place rather than miss a game — had reached her limit. Bissin counseled calm.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, look, we’ve been sitting out already for nine months. What’s a couple more days?’ She’s like, ‘I know, but I just want to play,’” Bissin said.

When she finally got on the field as a redshirt freshman, she led the team with seven goals and 16 points overall, earning West Coast Conference All-Freshman honors and being named Honorable Mention All-WCC. The Dons won 13 games — the most in school history — and beat then-No. 19 Santa Clara for the first time in 32 games all-time between the two schools. Jehnings scored the winning goal on a penalty kick, one of her three game-winners all season.

In part, athletes like Jehnings are more prone to ACL injuries. Due to differences in biomechanics between male and female athletes, various studies have found that female athletes are between two and 10 times more likely to injure their ACLs in sports like soccer. 

The spring after her breakout year, Jehnings tore her right ACL and left meniscus in one motion during a drill. 

“I went to shift, planted my right foot, and the girl cut back the other way, so I went that way, and my [right] foot got caught, and I turned,” Jehnings said. She felt a familiar pop in her right knee. Her left knee, though, felt strange.

“I asked Shannon, ‘Can you just check my left leg real quick? It feels kind of weird,’” Jehnings said. “She touched it, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, don’t touch it. Something is wrong.’”

She had suffered a bucket handle tear in her meniscus. Soon after, before surgery, Murphy, Jehnings and Millinder sat in the head coach’s office.

“She was crying, and I was sitting in there talking to her, and she’s balling,” Millinder said. “She said, ‘I want it so bad.’ I said, ‘It’ll work out.’”

Then, Millinder said something that stuck with Jehnings.

“I told her, I just knew she’d be a leader,” Millinder said. “When she came in here and she came back from her first ACL, she was a redshirt sophomore, when she scored the couple goals and you just knew. People gravitate toward her and she was confident. She had self belief, which, for women, is a big thing.”

She couldn’t walk for three weeks, she was in two full-leg braces for six weeks and it took 10 months and two surgeries to recover, missing another season. 

“She’s taught me a lot,” Murphy said. “You get kicked down, you’re at your lowest point, you can always push through and work your butt off and get to the stage you just left.”

“It’s hard when you tear your ACL the first time,” Millinder said. “Then, you do it again. It’s like, now, you really test your mental capacity, what’s your resilience like? … She shows you what perseverance does.”

After her first injury, Jehnings still had her speed. After coming back from her second, she had to get more creative.

“She’s so crafty around the box … She’s sharp, she can roll people, she has a good feel. She doesn’t panic,” Millinder said. “She commands. She’s physical, she mixes it up, she’s strong. She understands what we need to do to be successful. She’s almost like a second or third coach out there.”

Jehnings boasts several large tattoos on both of her arms. On her right forearm, a saying her mother is fond of: “This, too, shall pass.” She got that after her first ACL surgery. On her left arm, along with a breast cancer ribbon for her maternal grandmother, she has a clock on the outer aspect of her right biceps, just above the elbow. A rose is growing through the clock face. It symbolizes growth through time. She got that one during her second missed season.

The capstone: A two-lane road, weaving through the mountains, on her left shoulder. It comes from a doodle her father used to draw when she was a kid. The message: It’s not about the destination, but the adventure along the way.

The Dons face Gonzaga at 7 pm on Friday at Negoesco Stadium in San Francisco.

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