Along the downward slope that leads to the Franklin Academy soccer field, Keira Stephan limped into practice on crutches.
The girls’ soccer team was wrapping up one of its last before the state championship. Stephan missed practice Wednesday to have the knee injury she sustained in the Eastern Regional final examined by a doctor. The Patriots greeted Stephan, their leading scorer, with hugs, buzzing in anticipation for the latest update.
Seated on a shady pocket on the team bench with a brace around her left leg, Stephan announced the devastating news: a torn ACL.
Upon suffering a torn ACL in the East finals, Franklin Academy junior Keira Stephan had put in 12 postseason goals. She led the team this year with 46.
She will be sidelined four to six months, which means the Patriots will have to go without their leading scorer in Saturday’s final. Stephan scored 12 playoff goals to catapult top-seeded Franklin Academy into history, but the Patriots are confident their offensive versatility will shine.
“I know for a fact, overall, we’re a super strong team and without me, they can still win at states,” said Stephan, who managed a goal against Whiteville Tuesday upon the one-loss Patriots securing their first trip to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A title match. They will play the West’s top seed Community School of Davidson at N.C. State on Saturday.
“It’s a bit sad, but I’m just happy I could be there to support them,” Stephan said.
Franklin second-year coach Kambyl Borries said Stephan, who was rushed to the emergency room during a 6-0 regional win over Whiteville, has been a driving force this season. She finished her junior campaign with 46 goals and 103 points, both team bests.
The last thing I remember is there must have been some collision. I don’t really remember. I just remember feeling the shift in my knee.
Franklin junior Keira Stephan
She scored at least once in each postseason match, notching four each in respective games against Chatham Charter School and East Wake Academy.
“We had two players go down yesterday and rushed to the ER. That’s always heart-wrenching as a coach and really heartbreaking to the team,” Borries said. “Keira’s one of our captains. It’s always hard to see a teammate and leader go down, but thankfully, I have a solid team. One of the points made to me at the end of the game when I was feeling a little bit upset was the fact that we scored six goals and of those six goals, one of them was scored by Keira. We still have five, and then some, people on our bench who are fully capable of putting that ball into that net.
“I have no reason to think they won’t do that on Saturday.”
The team’s second leading scorer behind Stephan is her younger sister Niamh. As a freshman, she has 27 goals on the year.
Niamh Stephan led the Whiteville contest with two goals, stepping up as her sister came down.
“It really kind of hurt all of us seeing her go down the way that she did,” senior forward Isabelle Upchurch said of her fellow team captain. Keira Stephan was carried off the field with 11:20 left in the second half of Tuesday’s game, crumbling in agony after taking the ball to her left knee.
“It was painful to watch, and I know it was painful for her,” Upchurch said. “We also kind of talked about it afterward. As much as she’s been our top scorer, there are still really talented people on the team who I think can step up and score and help us win that state championship.”
Other big contributions have come from freshman Kennedy Capps, who’s scored seven goals in the playoffs.
I was at the regional game for the boys last year. I was there when the field was stormed by the audience. Most of my team was there. I grabbed a few of them and said, ‘Remember this, because this is going to be us this year.’
Franklin Academy coach Kambyl Borries
As the Franklin girls’ team tries to match the boys’ with a title win, Borries knows she can depend on her core of youth with Stephan on the bench.
“Looking at the bracket of 32 teams … it’s exciting to know that we’re playing the best of the best,” Borries said. “We’re up for the challenge. Honestly, what it comes down to is my team has chemistry. They are a really cohesive unit, and they’ve been playing together for years. Coming out and playing like this is not anything new to them.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan