Archive for December, 2011

Molly Lester

Molly Lester warms up before the national championship game.

KENNESAW, Ga. — Molly Lester’s story could easily be about what might have been.

It’s just that once you’re done chronicling what is for the fifth-year senior, there doesn’t seem to be much time left for the maybes and mights.

In addition to some posters that aren’t as profound as they seemed freshman year and some overdue library books, at least if she’s anything like most college students, Lester will leave Duke with more than memories in tow. She’ll take away an undergraduate degree in history, magna cum laude, with minors in English and French. She’ll exit with a master’s in management, part of a one-year program from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business that is the subject of buzz in the business world the same way the Blue Devils are in the soccer world.

On the soccer field, she will leave with at least six goals to her credit. Even if she doesn’t add to the total Sunday against Stanford, she may well leave with a national championship, the first in the history of the Duke program.

It’s a good haul for five years, but it hasn’t come easily. And not just the part in French.

Lester will also leave Durham with a left knee that required ACL surgery before she ever set foot on campus, costing her what would have been her freshman season in 2007, and microfracture surgery before her junior year, forcing her to the sideline for the second time in three seasons. Someone who arrived in Durham as a top-100 recruit, and who remains as athletically gifted as almost any player on the roster, even with the knee of a veteran NFL lineman, will leave knowing forces beyond her control took away dozens of goals and a starting spot, not to mention all those hours spent in the tedium of rehabilitation that could have been put to more frivolous use.

Or, given Lester’s curious insistence on productivity, perhaps another minor.

Considering she played sparingly as a defensive reserve in the only one of those first three seasons in which she was healthy, or at least a close approximation thereof, sticking around for an extra season wasn’t a given when her fourth campaign began in 2010. Why stick around to endure more punishment and disappointment? But finally able to stay on the field, she started 20 games and appeared in all 23 the Blue Devils played a season ago. She scored her first career goal in the opener at Georgia, not far from her Atlanta home, and finished with four goals and four assists.

Molly Lester (No. 15)

Molly Lester chases a goal vs. Houston

“Last year I felt like I finally found my step again,” Lester said. “I felt good, the knee felt good. And I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to commit to a fifth year [before that season]. I wasn’t sure what my knee was going to do, I wasn’t sure what my playing time was going to be. I ended up finding my groove and felt like I had more to give.”

Again, it wouldn’t be quite that easy. A productive starter for a team that reached the Sweet 16, Lester could reasonably have felt entitled to a starting spot if she returned for a fifth season. Surely, she had earned at least that much for her sweat and suffering. But with the arrival of uber-gifted striker Kelly Cobb from Alaska, Duke had a glut of talented forwards. Cobb came off the bench for the first weekend of the regular season, but her starting spot was a fait accompli from the moment she signed with the Blue Devils. Lester was the odd woman out, a reserve behind a freshman and two sophomores.

None of it came as a surprise. She isn’t dumb (see: cum laude, magna), and Church didn’t hide anything in discussing her options for returning. She simply made it clear that she wanted to come back in whatever role was available to her. The result is she’s played nearly 900 minutes this season, making six starts and 19 appearances off the bench, and scored twice.

The Blue Devils may not start any seniors, but don’t confuse that fact with a lack of seniors to look up to, even if they seem generously listed at 5-foot-4.

“She’s just a leader on and off the field,” midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr said. “She’s always getting us ready before practices, before games. She’s kind of like the mother of the team, always keeping us in check. And when she comes out there, her tenacity on the field is just contagious. She always comes out with great high pressure and just sets a tone.”

There is a photo from the aftermath of Duke’s quarterfinal win against Long Beach State that shows Lester walking off the field, hands frozen in mid-clap and a wide smile lighting up her face. Not only was she going to the College Cup, something no group of Duke players had done since 1992, but she was going to a College Cup played in Kennesaw, Ga., almost literally in her backyard.

“I think that’s why we all coach is to see those type of moments,” Church said. “She’s been a fantastic leader, she’s been a fantastic role model. And when she comes in, she has an impact on the game.”

So is it a story of what is or what might have been?

Lester is not a person of many words, at least around those she doesn’t know, perhaps merely combining her newfound business skills with an interest in writing by saving her deepest thoughts for a recounting of her own someday. But as student of American history, albeit more the Civil War era than the 18th century, perhaps she would appreciate being part of a comparison that involves Ben Franklin.

Another student of history, French, English and business, albeit one whose ability to get his foot on a well-placed cross in front of goal is debatable, Franklin is at the center of a famous anecdote about the rising and setting sun. Noting the difficulty of telling the difference between the two in paintings, he remarked during the signing of the Constitution that he was convinced the sun in front of him in that instance was rising.

Is Lester’s smile in that photo the rising or setting sun? Is it the final upbeat coda in a story of what could have been? Or as a week begins that promises both a championship game and news of job offers, is it just the start of her time?

Soccer is coming to an end for Molly Lester. Everything it gave and everything it took helped shape what comes next.

“I always knew the end was coming, but it is a little weird,” she said.


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