There were less than 15 minutes to play in the Players Development Academy (PDA) league’s New Jersey Cup Semifinal. Vanessa Kara — forward for the PDA Force — already had two goals. This was her shot at a third.
After all, then-Rutgers head coach, Glenn Crooks, was in attendance to watch the high school sophomore compete, and that was her dream school.
“I just remember it so clearly,” Vanessa said. “It was the best game I had, like, ever played at that point in my life,” she said.
She had a breakaway. No way am I getting a hat trick in this type of game.
But in a matter of seconds, her dream shattered, when a body part tore.
“The goalkeeper just came out of her box and just completely took me out,” Vanessa said.
Red card. Ejection.
I felt the pop again.
That pop was Vanessa’s right knee. After a left ACL tear her freshman year, the other knee had just suffered the same injury. It wasn’t just her leg that felt the pain — her recruiting momentum did, as well.
“(Rutgers) gave me an offer but didn’t really give me any scholarship money.” Kara said. “And it wasn’t just them. A couple other schools I was talking to, even schools that were my backup schools, I had radio silence, like, no one would answer an email.”
Vanessa at the time had seen both ACLs tear and didn’t even have her New Jersey driver’s license yet. The Burlington, New Jersey, native and Moorestown Friends School product committed to Drexel University in Philadelphia her senior year in 2014. Four years later, she moved again. Kara transferred to Florida for the 2019 season.
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Her athletic career took off way before college or high school. It started at the Bridle Club, the neighborhood she grew up in. Vanessa and her brothers, Mike and Bobby, played pickup sports with the boys’ friends right behind the Kara’s house. They had an empty grass lot right behind their backyard.
It was perfect for all the sports they played: football, baseball, soccer and field hockey. Vanessa was typically the only girl and by far the youngest one out there. But she was still a top pick in the Bridle Club drafts, regardless.
“We’d have upwards of 20 guys out there playing with us that were two to four years older than Vanessa, and honestly, she was one of the best players,” Mike said. “We’d have two captains who’d draft teams, and Vanessa was always picked near the top. She was only nine years old playing with 12-year-old boys, and she was kind of ruling the game back then too.”
Before soccer, another sport seemed to be her strength: touch football.
“Her best thing was being kind of like a defensive lineman rushing the quarterback,” Mike said. “She’d always come up with a sack.”
And the guys from the neighborhood knew that Vanessa was not an ordinary athlete. She had a legitimate future beyond the Bridle Club grass lot.
“When I still see those guys today, they’re like, ‘We knew your sister would do big things just based on the way she would dominate us as kids,’” Mike said.
And that future was eventually found in soccer. The Force is a top club team in the state of New Jersey and plays in a top league in the PDA.
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The injuries may have caused coaches at bigger schools to ignore her emails, but the talent was still there. So what did she do?
She became statistically the best forward that Drexel has ever had.
She was the Dragons’ best single-season goal-scorer ever in her freshman season (11) and was the Colonial Athletic Association’s Rookie of the Year. But the success didn’t last.
Injury struck again in her junior season.
She tore her right ACL for the second time late into the 2017 campaign, right before the playoffs. Because it was a second tear, the recovery was longer. For two months, her leg barely moved.
So, while she waited for the ACL to heal, the muscles in her leg withered away. The lack of activity essentially eroded them.
But it didn’t erode her support system.
“When you have your younger sister so passionate about something, and something you care about and really love, her dreams have kind of become my dreams over the years,” Mike said. “I’d pitch in driving her to therapy, to her velocity training to get running again.”
To get her surgically repaired ACL back to playing strength, she had to get her leg back to any strength at all. She didn’t know it at the time, but when that process was complete, her tenure at Drexel would also be.
The recovery took 11 months. It was not until deep into the following season that she was healthy again, so Vanessa decided to not burn a year of eligibility on a senior campaign that was almost over anyway. She medically redshirted and held on to the final year that she could play college soccer.
By the time Vanessa’s knee was in a good place, her mind was not. She didn’t approve of the direction of Drexel’s program under coach Ray Goon. After a season of sitting and watching, she felt that her final season of playing would be best served in a new uniform.
“(The Dragons) were kind of stuck in like an older way of viewing the game,” Vanessa said. “We never really worked on, like, possession or our attack.”
Another bad sign to Vanessa was dominance. She didn’t play in games that year, but Vanessa practiced when she got healthy.
“It shouldn’t be my first practice back, and I’m not being challenged,” Vanessa said. “It made me just worry about my development.”
That sparked her to make a life and athletic career-altering decision in November 2018: Vanessa was going to leave the school she had played for and attended for four years. She didn’t know where she’d play next at the time, she just knew it wouldn’t be Drexel.
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The recruiting process had begun all over again. But this time, big schools offered scholarships.
“I put my name in the NCAA portal, and I was like, ‘I have no idea where I want to go now,’” Vanessa said. “I had no idea who was going to be interested in me, and then one of my coaches connected me with (coach) Becky (Burleigh).”
Vanessa saw an established program in Florida with a deep history. She saw a program that has had the same coach since it began in 1995 and a program that’s produced World Cup champions like Abby Wambach and Melanie Booth. However, she wasn’t oblivious.
2018 was an abysmal year for the Gators: seven wins, 21 tries.
“I was nervous because I wanted to go somewhere and it be a top program so that my last year could be an amazing year,” Vanessa said. “Yeah, there was a risk that they could have the same repeat as last year, but I looked at is as a really good opportunity where I could add something.”
So, the decision was made. For the first time in her life, Vanessa would live somewhere other than the northeast. She drove to Florida in July with her parents, Paul and Grace.
They took Vanessa’s 2012 Nissan Sentra and Grace’s Toyota Highlander for the drive to Gainesville from Burlington that takes over 13 hours.
She moved into a house with five of her new teammates: Susi Espinoza, Kit Loferski, Parker Roberts, Alex Stubblebine and Haillie Lower.
“They not only accepted me for who I am, but they loved who I am,” Vanessa said. “I’m a little awkward… they mess with me about it, and they embrace me.”
During the offseason, the NCAA doesn’t allow organized practice, so Burleigh can’t set anything up, but the players play pickup with each other. Just in those pickup matches, Vanessa found the challenge she wanted when she left Drexel.
“It was a blast for me,” Vanessa said. “I was like ‘everybody is so good.’”
She was challenged by her new competition, as well. Through six matches, she had zero goals.
However, in the Florida Gulf Coast match on Sep. 12, that quickly changed. Vanessa scored half of UF’s goals in its blowout 4-0 victory over the Eagles. Three matches and four goals later, she was in familiar territory: the main goal-scorer.
“It’s hard to come into an already established program and only have one semester to play,” Burleigh said. “She’s a great addition.”
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Even with all of the recent success, Mike can’t help but feel a hint of nervousness. As much as he enjoys the success of his baby sister, he has seen this movie before.
“She could have a great game where she scores two goals, and me and my parents watching the games together, we’re kind of watching the clock,” Mike said. “Knowing everything she has to go through, everything the family has to go through, every game she plays after three torn ACL’s it’s like ‘alright she scored her goals, let’s get out of here healthy.’”
But the nervousness Mike, Paul and Grace feel doesn’t overcome their joy. That four-game, six-goal stretch, helped Vanessa’s total reach 10 goals on the season.
“Seeing her score is honestly one of the best things in my life when she does it,” Mike said. “It’s just so much joy for me and for everyone.”
A medical risk? Not worthy of scholarship money? Wrong.
The fifth-best goal-scorer in the SEC and a three-time conference player of the week.
“She came in the summer and really worked hard and showed people how much she was willing to put into this program,” Burleigh said. “I can’t really say a bad word about Vanessa.”
Follow Graham Marsh on Twitter @GrahamMarshUF. Contact him at [email protected]