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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

From PICC Lines to Picking Corners: Haley Hopkins heating up after medical scare

Hunter Long
Haley Hopkins runs through the Miami defense on Friday August 14, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

This was not the start to her college career that Haley Hopkins had in mind.

Instead of suiting up for the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team in her freshman season in 2017, she had a pair of surgical scars on her right knee and was relegated to a motor scooter on the sideline with an IV stuck in her arm pumping antibiotics into her bloodstream.

Fast forward to 2018 and Hopkins has become the focal point of a Commodore team that went 7-1 in non-conference play and will be riding a seven-game win streak going into SEC matchups. She leads the team with five goals and sits in the top 10 in the SEC in goals and points.

With a year’s delay, head coach Darren Ambrose finally has the player he thought he was getting when he recruited her. But, it took a struggle through a freak medical scare that could have ended her career to get her back on the field and healthy. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s all that mattered.

“Your health is the only thing that matters,” Ambrose said. “It’s the one thing in your life that you really have. That was the attitude we took and I thought she did everything she could and kept as positive of an attitude, though I know at times it was very difficult for her.”

The Mysterious Pain

Vanderbilt Soccer plays against Western Kentucky Thursday, September 6th, 2018. Photo by Emma Stapleton

Ambrose had Hopkins on his radar ever since he was the soccer coach at Penn. When he arrived at Vanderbilt, he immediately got to work on bringing her in. She was recruited heavily by PAC-12 schools out of Mater Dei High School in Newport Beach, California, but ultimately chose Vanderbilt for the balance of academic rigor and burgeoning soccer prowess.

“We talked to her about the idea of her being able to help turn a program into a contender and into an NCAA Tournament-type team,” Ambrose said. “And that she would be a big part of that going forwards. We challenged her with the responsibility of it. If you say that and you want that then you’re going to get that. So far, she’s shown up and done that.”

However, when she arrived on campus to start training in August 2017, she started feeling pain in her right knee. She hadn’t injured it, and the training staff could not figure out what was wrong with her. It started swelling, so she had it drained. The initial diagnosis was a fluke case of gout arthritis.

Hopkins tried to play through the pain at Saint Louis on Sunday, August 20th after getting a steroid injection, but she still was not feeling great. She had her knee drained again back in Nashville the next Wednesday after it swelled up again. Still, no one knew what was causing the pain.

Later that week, the trainers solved the mystery.

Tests revealed a staph infection in her knee that required emergency surgery. The head soccer trainer, Sara Melby, called Hopkins and rushed her to the hospital for surgery that day. Hopkins was holed up in the hospital all weekend while the rest of her team was playing games in Boston.

However, she was not completely alone. By mere coincidence, teammate and fifth-year senior Danae O’Halloran had torn her ACL in training camp and contracted a different strain of the staph infection in her surgically-repaired knee. That weekend, she was in a different hospital receiving treatment.

“We were both in the hospital by ourselves,” O’Halloran said. “Just to be all alone like that as a freshman and not have your team around, she definitely went through a lot.”

After she was released from the hospital, Hopkins still wasn’t feeling 100%, so she had bloodwork done the following Wednesday. The staph infection had returned, so she had to have another surgery right before her family was set to fly to Nashville for the weekend’s games in the 2017 Music City Invitational.

“Coming in as a freshman it’s never easy in the first place,” Hopkins said. “Going through something like that definitely is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

Hopkins woke up after her second surgery with her entire family in the room with her as she prepared for a long road of recovery. Even in such a trying time, she immediately found comfort in one of her favorite things: Harry Potter.

“I’m not even kidding, there was a Harry Potter marathon during my second weekend in the hospital, so I woke up to Deathly Hallows and my sister had been watching Harry Potter when I woke up too,” Hopkins said.

Recovering Competitor

Photo by Emma Stapleton

After the surgery, Hopkins got around campus on a motor scooter and had to constantly carry around an IV PICC line inserted in her arm that made sure her antibiotics were getting into her bloodstream effectively. Consequently, Ambrose and the coaching staff shut her down for the season and awarded her a medical redshirt.

Even after her family had left, her teammates and coaches became like family and supported her through a traumatizing experience while she was still adjusting to being a college student and a college athlete.

“It was a really hard time in my life for sure, but coming in already having friends on the team and knowing that everyone would be there for me,” Hopkins said. “Coaches were constantly checking in with me, trainers, friends visiting me in the hospital. I constantly had people checking in from home. Definitely having the team and support system here really got me through that.”

One of her best friends on the team, sophomore Madison Elwell, also became a huge support system and made sure that Hopkins still felt like she was part of the team.

“I think the team realized this and with injuries on the team, everyone knew how they went through ups and downs, good days and bad days,” Elwell said. “It was good to always be around Haley, be there when she needs us and not be there when she wants to be alone sometimes. I think just constantly including her in things whether or not she was playing in the games, her vision was needed and she was still learning even if she wasn’t playing.”

When you talk to Hopkins’ teammates and coaches, the first thing they’ll tell you about her is her competitive nature. Ambrose said she would just will balls into the net on the field. O’Halloran was shocked that she could even try to play through the pain of the staph infection before she was diagnosed.

That’s what made it even harder for her to watch from the sidelines as Vanderbilt climbed the SEC rankings and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in decades. Luckily for her, she had O’Halloran by her side. O’Halloran also used a scooter and had a PICC line after recovering from her ACL surgery and subsequent staph infection.

“I know how frustrating going to rehab every day is and sitting on the sideline while your team is practicing and playing and you’re sitting there doing knee exercises and you’re also getting to practice early every day and doing additional exercises,” O’Halloran said.

“It’s just a lot, you know? To not be able to do the part that we love and actually play, it’s nice to have somebody there to guide you through it. I know she was struggling a lot, so she did look to me if she ever needed help with anything. I’m just glad I could be there for her.”

The pair also kept things light despite going through a life-altering experience. They would crack jokes about their scooter-bound state and even held a scooter race on the field after a practice. Their bond helped get them both through what would have been a miserable thing to go through alone.

“We kind of had that special bond of being injured together,” Hopkins said. “We were always on the sidelines doing rehab and having that fifth-year experience was definitely guidance for me as a freshman, being a little nervous. She was incredible. Definitely got me through that time.”

The Resurgence

Haley Hopkins scores the go-ahead goal against Miami on Friday August 14, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Hopkins was cleared to return this Spring to train with the team and prepare for the season in the Fall. She had the chance to play exhibition games and make the trip to Japan with the team to play some exhibition matches there.

Having that time to get her legs back under her has paid dividends.

“The spring definitely gave me some confidence back, just being able to play games and play soccer again,” Hopkins said. “It was hard coming off of four months, it took time. I kept telling myself that I had to be patient. The coaches and team were incredibly helpful and very supportive. I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing without them.”

As the season has gotten underway, Hopkins has played exactly as advertised. She’s been in the starting lineup all season long and has played an integral role in Vanderbilt’s offensive attack. Hopkins’ signature moment early in the season was a late game-winning header on a Friday night against Miami. She also scored an early winner against Saint Louis with a blistering breakaway ending in a ball through the goalkeeper’s legs.

She has also been clutch from the penalty spot, converting on a pair of penalty kick chances. All in all, she’s been a dominant player, and that’s drawn the attention of opposing defenders. Despite the fact that she’s beaten multiple defenders on many occasions, the coaching staff has challenged her to move the ball around with more pace, and she’s responded in kind.

“She grows when she becomes a player that people know about and that’s already happening,” Ambrose said. “She’s going to have to bring other people into the game, and she’s already learned that I think. She’s started to realize that if I’m double-teamed and my back is to the goal I can’t turn and go every time. There’s someone else I can bring into the game.”

When the defenders get drawn to her, players like Elwell benefit from the extra space. For example, Elwell scored a highlight-reel goal against Western Kentucky on a bending shot from the top of the box after she split her two defenders. She was given the space to split the defenders because one of them noticed Hopkins making a run down the wing and cheated towards her.

That kind of attention is rare for a player her age, but coveted for the whole team.

“Everyone can trust her with the ball,” Elwell said of Hopkins. “So just knowing that she’s there and being able to play the ball, whether I’m going to get it back or if she’s going to turn inside, I know that something’s going to happen.”

As a redshirt freshman, Hopkins will have another four years of eligibility left. If the first eight games of the 2018 season are any indication, the Commodore Soccer program could be a powerhouse by the time Hopkins is finished making her legacy on West End.

Given all she went through last year, she has nowhere to go but up.

“I think the team even last year watching the team go that far in the NCAA tournament was so exciting to be a part of,” Hopkins said. “I just think this year that the team most definitely has the potential to do even more, to go even further.”

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About the Contributors
Cutler Klein
Cutler Klein, Former Sports Editor
Cutler Klein ('19) was the Sports Editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He previously served as Assistant Sports Editor. He majored in communication studies in the College of Arts and Science. When he's not writing stories, tweeting silly GIFs or watching any hockey game he can find, Cutler is running the sports department of VandyRadio, hosting VU Sports Wired on VTV and covering the Nashville Predators as a credentialed media member for Penalty Box Radio. Cutler has had bylines on and
Hunter Long
Hunter Long, Former Multimedia Director
Hunter Long (’21) is from Austin, TX and double majored in molecular biology and medicine, health and society. He is an avid lover of film photography, good music and all things coffee. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Emma Stapleton, Former Author
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