Lacrosse: Bowen beats odds beating injury

Danny Daly

Hilary Bowen is a cheerful person by nature.

In fact, that’s probably an understatement. It’s rare to see the Wildcats’ star senior attacker without a wide smile stretched across her face.

Less than two minutes into Northwestern’s 21-4 win on April 4 against California, Bowen collapsed in pain after trying to make a sharp cut to the goal. Despite her optimistic outlook, even Bowen said she did not think she would play again this season.

“When I fell, I knew right away that something wasn’t right,” she said. “I was really upset more than anything – that the first thought that goes through your head is, ‘My season’s probably over.'”

Bowen had never been seriously injured before, but she suspected she might have injured her ACL, based on what she had heard and read. On the sidelines, Bowen asked trainer Lisa Palazzo to be up front with her about what it looked like when she went down. Palazzo said it looked like she damaged her ACL, confirming Bowen’s fears.

Generally speaking, knee injuries like that take months to come back from – especially for a high-speed sport like lacrosse that requires constant change of direction. The likelihood of being able to play again before the end of the year was somewhere between slim and none.

“I knew there was a very small chance that I’d be able to make it back,” Bowen said.

Bowen took her recovery one day at a time, so she wouldn’t be disappointed if she couldn’t return to the field. But the early signs after her injury were encouraging, and she decided to postpone season-ending surgery.

It was a difficult decision, because there was a chance of permanent damage to her knee if she came back too quickly. On the other hand, women’s lacrosse is not a sport that has a professional league for players after they graduate. This year is the end of Bowen’s playing career, and winning her fourth consecutive national title is the ultimate accomplishment.

“It’s easy for everyone on the outside to say, ‘Think about your long-term health,'” Bowen said. “And I do think about that. But I also think about the team and how hard I’ve worked to get to this point this season and just knowing that it’s my last shot at it. This is what you live for in this sport.”

Bowen’s teammates fully supported her decision. They cheered her on the first time she ran and encouraged her, without pushing her to do anything she was not capable of doing.

It all paid off last Saturday. Just 41 days after tearing the ACL in her left knee, she had recovered well enough to start in the NCAA quarterfinals against Princeton. Not only did Bowen start – she scored on a free-position shot from eight meters out in the first half.

Bowen played the majority of the first half. She did not start the second half, but was on the field for a few minutes until the Cats had put the game away.

The performance suggested that the winner of the last two NCAA tournament MVP awards could be a valuable weapon down the stretch.

“Hilary is definitely mobile,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “I don’t think anyone expected her to be as strong as she is. Just being out there gives our offense a boost.”

Bowen gives Amonte Hiller’s squad strategic advantages by being a lefty and forcing teams to worry about where she is. More importantly her presence was comforting.

“It felt nice just to look over to my left and to see her there and to see her score in her first game back,” senior attacker Hannah Nielsen said. “She took a few one-on-ones, split a couple of double teams and looked like the Hil-Bo of old.”

Bowen might make it look easy, but she is still trying to get back into the flow of the game. Even though she can make cuts and shots, building back the confidence that she can play without hurting herself again takes time.

The Princeton game was important because she proved that she was still capable of being a factor. Now, she gets to finish her career the right way: competing in the NCAA semifinals against Penn, her close-knit classmates.

“We’ve been through so much as a senior class, and there’s no way I’d rather end it than out on the field with them,” Bowen said.

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