Forty-nine minutes into Sunday’s UNC Nike Classic game against Weber State, Cassie Pecht found the back of the net to extend Duke’s lead to 3-0. As the National Rookie of the Year in 2012, her goal would presumably be commonplace for the Blue Devils.
But Pecht had not scored since that decorated 2012 campaign. Stricken with repeating knee injuries that rendered her unable to play for the past two seasons, the redshirt sophomore has quickly re-emerged, once again providing an offensive spark for Duke.
“There’s so much I can say in regards to her work ethic and her perseverance and everything that she’s done to come back. It’s heartbreaking to watch a teammate go through so much,” junior captain Christina Gibbons said. “More than anything, all the credit goes to her for continuing to work hard and continuing to stay positive and get back out there.”
Pecht—a Mechanicsburg, Pa., native—came to Durham from Cumberland Valley High School, where she was ranked No. 10 in her recruiting class by TopDrawerSoccer.com. She was named the 2010 Pennsylvania State Gatorade Player of the Year as a sophomore, and in her junior year, Pecht led her team to the Pennsylvania state championship despite being plagued by an injury.
In her debut season as a Blue Devil, the 5-foot-4 midfielder started all 23 games and scored six goals. Her nation-best 15 assists was a record for Duke freshmen, setting the table for a high-scoring offense that reached the national quarterfinals against Penn State in the NCAA tournament. Pecht’s performance earned her ACC Rookie of the Year honors, as well as spots on Soccer America’s All-Freshmen First Team and the All-ACC second team.
Despite her on-field success, Pecht’s career was about to take a turn for the worse. During her breakout freshman season, the cartilage in her knee gradually wore down and the midfielder opted to have surgery the following spring, a procedure with a projected recovery time of eight to 12 months.
But as her rehabilitation process neared the eight-month mark, Pecht knew something was wrong.
“I was running, kind of getting back into it, but it wasn’t really feeling too well,” she said. “I got another MRI and it showed there was another hole in the cartilage. So then I had to get a microfracture surgery.”
Pecht went through another six months of rehabilitation and entered preseason camp in 2014 hoping to get back on the field. Instead, two days into practice, Pecht was dealt another setback when doctors discovered another hole in her cartilage.
“That was really tough because I was super excited for preseason and I was just really let down,” Pecht said. “The coaches, the physical therapists always believed in me and helped me through it. There were days where I wanted to quit, but knowing that they were supporting me was awesome.”
The midfielder underwent her third major surgery and has once again rehabbed to return to playing form. Still dealing with the hole in her cartilage underneath her kneecap, Pecht has chosen not to utilize a brace during games because increased pressure on her knee irritates the weak spot.
The road back has been long—but she is finally back in action and could contribute to the Blue Devil offense through 2017 if she chooses to do so.
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“She’s never wavered, she’s never blamed anybody, she’s just kind of gone back to work,” head coach Robbie Church said. “[The credit] goes to Cassie—to her mental toughness too—to fight through injury and now she’s back and she’s playing at a very high level.”
The return of such a star player is a huge addition to the Duke roster. Pecht’s dynamic style of play gives her the ability to change the pace of a game. Gibbons praised the midfielder for her ability to create spacing on the field for her teammates as well as her passing.
With Pecht back in the lineup, the Blue Devils scored nine goals in two games at the UNC Nike Classic, a year after being shut out twice in the same tournament. Alongside standout freshmen Taylor Racioppi and Kayla McCoy—who combined for six goals during the weekend—Pecht’s presence creates a challenge for opposing defenses looking to slow down the Duke attack.
“She’s so good on the dribble—you just don’t want to be a defender and see her running at you,” Church said. “She can see past them, she can slip players in, she can strike from distance, she can score goals. And those things will continue to come.”
After spending the summer preparing for the season by training with the Carolina Railhawks program, Pecht got herself back in soccer shape with the college season on the horizon. With two regular season games under her belt, Pecht has played 104 minutes, and Church is anxious to see the midfielder continue to develop.
“She’s excited, the coaching staff’s excited, especially [assistant coach Carla Overbeck] and myself that have been here through the whole time, and have seen how hard she’s worked to come back,” Church said. “I almost had tears during the lineup [against Clemson] when she was announced and ran out there.”