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The fingernails give it away.

Standing on the soccer field at Santa Rosa High School with one foot propped up on a ball, Alyiah Shields’ fingernails are long, painted and manicured. She will not be playing soccer today.

Or tomorrow. Or the next day.

When and if Shields, 18, plays soccer again is a question no one is ready to answer. Not even Shields.

One year ago, Shields was arguably the best high school soccer player in the North Bay. Having battled back from two torn anterior cruciate ligaments since the eighth grade, she was finally suiting up for the Maria Carrillo High School Pumas for her senior season.

But her one season with the Pumas felt almost like a bonus. A standout on her various club teams, Shields was already booked to play soccer at UCLA in the fall of 2018.

Last February, the official Twitter account of UCLA women’s soccer announced: “We’re excited to welcome midfielder Alyiah Shields to Westwood for the 2018 season!”

Ten days after that tweet, the Pumas were playing in the North Coast Section quarterfinal game against Northgate High when Shields heard an all-too-familiar pop.

“I felt it and I knew something was wrong,” she said. “But I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’”

But she wasn’t fine. Shields had torn her ACL for the third time in four years.

It took a couple of days to confirm the injury. But after the Pumas won the Division 2 NCS title, Shields was on the field and tearfully told her teammates she wouldn’t be back as they advanced to the NorCal tournament.

“It was really a sisterhood moment,” she said. “It’s that connection. You have your friends, but then you have your teammates. It’s like totally different because that turns more into family.”

Shields called UCLA and talked over her surgery schedule. Her family wanted to wait until school was out for spring break — the first week in April — before having surgery and starting rehab. The family said there was some pressure from team officials to get it done sooner.

It all weighed heavily on Alyiah.

“I decided I didn’t want to go,” she said. “It was a really hard decision, but I feel like it was the right one.”

Two weeks to the day after she blew out her knee, Shields was driving a friend home from breakfast at a local restaurant. Making her way through the rain, she had just turned from Farmers Lane in Santa Rosa and was eastbound on Highway 12 when her car began to hydroplane. She remembers another car slamming into her driver’s side door and emergency crews working to extricate her, but not much else.

Alyiah’s parents, Julia and Chris, were running errands that morning.

“I remember seeing the Nixle alert on my phone,” Julia Shields said. “It was ‘Highway 12, serious accident.’”

They were walking in the door at home when Alyiah Shields’ friend, the one who had been with her in the car, called.

“Your stomach drops out,” Chris Shields said.

Shields had multiple fractures in her pelvis, a ruptured bladder, a ruptured ovary and a fractured face.

The day after the accident, in the ICU at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, she turned 18.

UCLA was out. Soccer was over. She would not return to school for her senior year.

“I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t move,” Shields said.

That was a low point — lying in the hospital and feeling trapped in her own body. A body once so strong and capable was now badly broken.

“I wanted to scream,” she said. “I wanted to let it out, but I couldn’t. That is definitely the one thing I remember.”

“It was really scary,” Shields’ friend Jessica McAtee-Pierson said. “She was really out of it. Her eyes could barely open. I was holding her hand and she would just squeeze it. She couldn’t say hi or anything.

“It was really, really hard at the beginning because she was so completely out of it for so long,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, is it going to be better?’”

When Shields was discharged from the hospital on March 14, she was using a wheelchair. Her parents installed a hospital bed on the first floor of their Santa Rosa home. She used a portable toilet. The kitchen sink became a de facto bathing area.

“My mom would have to wash my hair and shave my legs,” she said.

Her early physical therapy goals consisted of simply sitting up. She was immobile for so long, she got vertigo.

But her strength served her well. And her body clearly remembered how to heal.

“The physical recovery was about as good as we could have hoped,” Chris Shields said.

But Alyiah Shields had been through more than just physical trauma. She had battled back from not one but two potentially career-ending injuries to secure a scholarship from one of the best soccer programs in the country. She was supposed to be a Bruin, playing on one of the grandest stages in college soccer. Instead she was transitioning from a wheelchair to a walker, and, by summer, to walking on her own.

“Her whole life has been soccer, so now it’s like, ‘What do I do now?’” Julia Shields said. “I just kept trying to tell her it wasn’t who she was, it was something she did.”

“It was real tough,” Chris Shields said. “She had a hard time. It was the accumulation of things over the years. It was finally just overwhelming. It wasn’t just the car accident or the knee … it was really challenging for her to keep her spirits up.”

Even for the most positive person, and Shields is most definitely a positive person, it would be impossible not to ask: Why me?

“That came to mind a lot,” Julia Shields said of her younger daughter. “Even for her. She would ask us and what do you say? Even Chris and I, we would ask, ‘Why her? She’s such a good kid.’

“I guess I still wonder sometimes,” she said.

Alyiah Shields didn’t return to class at Maria Carrillo, but she was able to go to the prom. She was still using a wheelchair, but she refused to have her pictures taken sitting down.

And she danced — sort of.

“I was able to stand on the dance floor and they were able to hold me,” she said. “Prom was so fun. It was the best time ever.”

When Maria Carrillo held its graduation ceremony on June 1, there was no ramp to the elevated stage, just stairs. Shields climbed the stairs and walked across the stage on her own. Twice, in fact.

The first time they called Shields’ name, the microphone wasn’t working. So she had to circle around and cross the stage again.

“Amazing,” McAtee-Pierson said of that moment. “It was just amazing.”

Shields registered for classes at Santa Rosa Junior College for the fall semester. She wants to major in kinesiology. She took a job at Goji Kitchen in Santa Rosa.

Then Nikki Kumasaka called.

Kumasaka teaches physical education at Slater Middle School. When Shields was a student there and recovering from her first torn ACL, counselor Joe Walsh recommended that Shields sign up as Kumasaka’s teaching assistant.

“She couldn’t do P.E., and I thought it would be good to be around sports,” he said.

And it would probably be good to be around Kumasaka. Kumasaka is the girls soccer coach at Santa Rosa High. The two hit it off.

And they stayed in touch. When Shields did her public signing with UCLA, she invited Kumasaka to attend.

“I said, ‘I’d be honored,’” Kumasaka remembers.

The car accident was stunning in its timing and its severity. Kumasaka and Walsh visited Shields in the hospital and both kept track of her recovery.

Then this fall, Kumasaka decided to call Shields. The junior varsity coaching position was open; would Shields be interested?

“I immediately wanted to do it,” Shields said.

Kumasaka knew Shields, despite having no coaching experience, had the soccer chops to pull it off. But she worried a little — would it be difficult to be around the game so soon? Would she know how to lead and teach girls who in some cases were mere months younger than she? How would girls on the varsity squad — girls who had played against Shields just months ago — react?

The novice coach put it all to rest, Kumasaka said.

“The second she walked in, they respected her,” she said. “I don’t think the (JV) girls quite understand how good of a soccer player she is. She just came in with a presence.”

Kumasaka remembers one of the first team training sessions. The air quality was bad from the wildfires in Butte County, so practice was held in Slater’s gym. Kumasaka remembers asking if Shields needed a hand.

“She was like, ‘No, I’ve got this,’” she said. “She had them moving, she’d stop and talk calmly. It was like she was a natural. She had it.”

The Panthers say as much.

“You can tell she really cares,” sophomore Eliana Bruce said. “When you can tell someone really cares, it’s a lot easier to listen to them and what they have to say.”

“I think that with all sports … you need to be able to persevere, you can’t give up. You can’t give up with anything you do,” Bruce said. “With having someone who has never given up, it inspires you to not give up yourself.”

And despite her command of the game, Shields isn’t overbearing. Nor is she resentful. She’s never shown any sign that she wants to be somewhere else, Kumasaka said.

“She has never, never, never shown any bitterness,” she said.

In fact, Shields is exceedingly understanding, said freshman Katie Jo Brumbaugh.

“She definitely passes on her knowledge really well and she’s not like the aggressive kind of coach. She’s gentle in her teaching but she definitely gets it through,” she said.

For Kumasaka, Shields’ soccer know-how is an obvious asset. But her gift to the players might be something more important.

“She can teach them soccer, she can teach them about mental toughness and just about life in general,” she said.

“Even though it’s going to be a long road, she’s doing it and she’s teaching girls along the way,” she said.

Shields walks with a barely perceptible hitch in her gait. Sometimes she needs to sit down when her hip begins to ache. She still thinks about when she’ll have surgery to repair her right knee.

When the coaching gig came up, reaction was mixed in the Shields household.

Alyiah and her mom were excited. Chris Shields was wary. He felt that after a tumultuous year, Alyiah had found a rhythm. She was taking a full academic load and working at a local restaurant.

Plus, while soccer had brought a lot of joy to his daughter over the years, the last few seasons had been painful. He thought more time away might be prudent.

But he also realized that it’s not his decision to make. And he wants his daughter to be happy. Soccer makes her happy.

“I guess the thing is to be thankful,” he said. “Something like that is perspective-changing very quickly. You go from feeling sorry for yourself for losing these things to being thankful that she is still here with us.

“We were just so thankful that as bad as it was, that it wasn’t worse. That is how we coped,” he said.

That, too, is how Shields coped. And she continues to cope. She loves soccer but can’t say where or how she’ll play again. And she loves her new-found freedom, too. She can go away on vacation, she can hang out and she can go to the gym without a specific workout plan.

And she can take care of her fingernails.

“I feel like I have had a lot of things planned out for me and my future,” she said. “Those things that throw you off course a little bit helped me better understand that you can plan things, but it’s not always going to work out like that.”

It’s not where she thought she’d be a year ago. But it might be exactly where she should be.

“Even though it’s not what I thought,” she said. “It’s still going to be OK.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield.

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