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Benefield: Maria Carrillo senior gets her long-awaited shot

Maria Carrillo senior Alyiah Shields works past a defender during practice at Epicenter, in Santa Rosa on Monday, January 15, 2018. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

For three seasons, Maria Carrillo senior Alyiah Shields stood on the sideline with a clipboard.

Shields would take stats for the Pumas’ girls soccer team; she’d gather balls, sometimes she’d chime in about what she was seeing on the field. But she never played a minute. And we should all feel ripped off about it.

Because when she’s on the field today, she’s a joy to watch.

“She is definitely a game-changer,” senior teammate Brianna Van Giesen said. “She definitely has a presence on the field.”

But for years, that presence was missed.

“Going into high school, before I got injured, I planned on playing all four years,” Shields said.

Shields has had uncommonly bad luck.

In the summer after her eighth-grade year, she was playing with her club team when she tore the ACL in her left knee. Twelve months of rehab followed.

Two months after she started playing again, she was in San Diego playing in a tournament when she went into a tackle and came away with a torn right ACL.

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Nobody would blame Shields if she felt a little bit bitter. After all, three years of playing for the Pumas was taken from her and she was sidelined for a good portion of her club career as well.

But thanks to the gift of time and perspective, that’s not the way Shields looks at it.

“It’s definitely one of the best experiences I have ever had,” she said. “I have grown so much. I’m a better player now.”

Those seasons Shields was hanging around the Pumas’ practices with a clipboard and shagging balls, she wasn’t killing time. She was using it. Those months of rehab apart from her club team, she was learning how to make her body stronger for the long haul.

“I watched a lot of soccer,” she said. “I definitely have better vision now, I understand the game better.”

And she knows that it took more than physical rehab to get back on the field. She has honed her mental game, too.

“You can’t play scared. That’s when you get injured,” she said. “You have to be tough. You have to understand you are going to be fine.”

Shields is going to be fine and she knows it. Because while she loves the game just as much as ever, she has endured long stretches without it and knows there is more to life than game day.

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This is a player who, for a stretch, was commuting to the South Bay three times a week, just to practice with her club team. Soccer is no joke to her.

But when it was taken away, she had some thinking to do.

“I gained a lot of knowledge from those experiences,” she said. “I realized that it’s not all about soccer. I figured out where I want to be and what I want to do.”

And happily for the rest of us, soccer is part of that plan.

Shields is playing center midfield for the Pumas this season and next season is headed to UCLA to play for a Bruins squad that was runner-up to Stanford in the national championship. She plans to study kinesiology.

Pumas head coach Debra LaPrath is thankful to have Shields for however many games she can get her.

“I have had her the last three and a half years, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” she said of Shields’ stint as manager. “To get her this year has been a blessing.”

Shields’ play stands out. She has the strength and skill to hold balls even under intense pressure — long enough for teammates to make the right run. And she rarely misses that opening or that connection.

“She is very confident with the ball. I know when she gets the ball she is not going to lose it,” Van Giesen said. “I 100 percent trust her.”

And teammates know she will deliver.

“She is very crisp in passing,” Van Giesen said. “She always has a plan of where she is going.”

And that trusting relationship added another layer this season, when it was Van Giesen who went down with a torn ACL. The four year varsity player is out for the season.

“When it first happened, she reached out to me and I was a wreck,” she said. “She calmed me down. It’s inspiring that she came back after tearing both of them and is going to UCLA.”

Van Giesen is committed to play for Loyola Marymount University next season, so she has been picking Shields’ brain for rehab tips and how to stay the course mentally.

“She has been there whenever I needed anything,” she said. “It’s been very helpful. I’m not as scared because I know that she did it. It helps me mentally that she went through this twice and came back and is still a phenomenal player.”

LaPrath’s only critique? Shields hasn’t been thinking shoot first. She has just two goals the five games she has played this season.

“She can crush a ball,” LaPrath said. “She can strike a ball like no other.

“I’m asking her to get more shots off,” she said. “Part of that is not playing, but the other part is, at attacking mid, I think she sees her role as more service.”

Shields does not argue the point.

“I feel like I’m a playmaker,” she said. “My favorite thing to do is set someone up with a good ball or get a good sequence going.

“But who doesn’t love to score?” she said. “I need to definitely start creating more for myself.”

LaPrath said that the fortunes of the Pumas, now 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the North Bay League headed into Wednesday’s game against Cardinal Newman, depend on Shields getting a little more selfish on offense.

“If that means me putting her up top to force her to shoot more, we’ll do it,” she said.

Shields said she’ll do what her teams needs her to do. After all, she’s spent three seasons doing just that, only all off the field.

She’s been waiting a long time for this.

“I really wanted to play high school soccer,” she said. “It’s my senior year and here I am.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”