By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, Mo. – As journeys go, that of Missouri’s Sarah Thune has been of the long and winding variety, with many obstacles and road blocks, but one that never lost focus on the eventual destination.
A standout prep at Big Foot High School in Fontana, Wisc., Thune was a multi-sport athlete who was an all-conference selection in both soccer and basketball and a school-record-holder in track. Thune, who Missouri head coach Bryan Blitz described as “one of the best center back defenders in the country,” played club soccer for FC Milwaukee Nationals, helping her team win the state championship each year from 2004-09.
She tore her left ACL as a junior in high school and rebounded to play her senior year. Despite the injury, Blitz and his staff saw something special in Thune and recruited her to Missouri.
“You never want to hear the word ACL come out of a doctor’s mouth,” Thune said by telephone on Tuesday. “My junior year of high school was the first time I tore my ACL and I was able to come back from that. I was being recruited at that time and it was extremely never-racking, but Bryan had confidence in me.”
Thune first arrived in Columbia in the fall of 2009, but sprained her MCL shortly after and would end up redshirting her rookie season. The combination of not being able to play, coupled with the transition to the collegiate experience and a new location wasn’t an easy one for Thune.
She told Blitz that she wanted to transfer.
“I think for a lot of the players, it is a difficult transition,” Thune said. “I am the youngest of four and it was the whole homesick thing. [The decision to transfer] was a tough thing and I felt like it was right at the time.”
Blitz was disappointed to hear his pupil’s decision, but understood. Thune asked if she could remain in Columbia during the spring semester of her freshman year and continue to train. Blitz obliged but, expecting Thune to transfer following the spring semester, recruited to fill the expected vacancy.
That’s when Thune had a change of heart.
“Something hit me that I chose Mizzou for a reason and that I was where I was supposed to be,” she said. “My soccer family made it all worth it.”
The problem was, Blitz had filled the scholarship previously held by Thune in anticipation of the upcoming year.
“I gave away her scholarship,” Blitz said. “I said ‘I’d love to have you. I recruited you, but if you’re going to stay it will be under a different monetary situation.’ She understood and stuck it out. Her parents really supported her and she supported herself financially, as well. She made a choice that was maybe a hasty one and we had to recruit another defender. But she took the risk, took it in stride and said she was going to make it work.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2010, Thune saw action in 17 matches, scoring a pair of goals. A year later, she played in 14 matches before again tearing her ACL. It was a devastating blow, but one that Thune wasn’t going to let get her down.
“The second time around on an injury, you can either beat yourself up or say ‘I’ve done this before,’” Blitz said. “She made that more of an advantage to herself the second time around. She was just ferocious in her rehab and that’s really the only reason she’s back. A lot of kids would have mentally quit.”
Thune, as she had done her entire career, persevered. She credits her support system for helping make her recovery possible.
“If there’s ever a place to repair a knee, it’s with the training staff and doctors here; they made it easy for me and made me want to come back as soon as possible,” Thune said. “I have an amazing support system with my family and I don’t think I could have done it without these girls. I know that a lot of people say this, but I truly know there’s a reason for everything that goes on.”
Thune saw time in 20 matches as a junior but, entering her fifth year with the program in the fall of 2013, her full recovery coupled with personnel needs on the Missouri team opened the door for Thune to finally take an important role on the field for the Tigers.
“Her knee is stronger and her confidence is stronger than ever,” Blitz said. “We had the conversation this spring that she was in a place where she could now challenge for minutes on the field and be more than just a great leader. She now had the opportunity to do both.”
Thune has played in 13 of her team’s matches with 11 starts. She has been critical to the success of Missouri’s defense – which has posted four shutouts – this season.
“She makes everybody around her better,” Blitz said. “She keeps everybody calm and gives them a feeling of confidence when things aren’t going great. She is a great organizer and is a beast in the air. Anything in the air, she wins. For our young defense, she has been such a necessary component to us doing well defensively.”
Thune has certainly relished her time on the field the season, understanding that when it comes to her soccer career, she can’t take anything for granted.
“It’s amazing, honestly,” she said. “I think everyone coming into college feels like they have the skill set to play, but things happen throughout. I couldn’t be happier to finally be an impact here at this program. I’m a very vocal person, but I love being able to have accountability on the field and helping the team on the field and off. I proved I could battle through injuries and adversity. It’s been a thrill. I couldn’t be more blessed for everyone who believed in me and supported me the whole way through.”
Thune has been an incredibly positive impact for a young Missouri team, which lost several key players from last season’s squad, including SEC Co-Scholar-Athlete of the Year Allison Hu on the back line.
“When she speaks, everybody listens because she has so much credibility,” Blitz said. “Even in the darkest, toughest times, she has always grinded through with a smile on her face. She puts everybody else in front of her own needs. If you could draw up the perfect teammate in the dictionary, her picture is in there because of that.”
For Thune, she wouldn’t trade the opportunity she has had at Missouri for anything. Through all the trials and tribulations, her journey has been well worth it.
“I am going to take away some of the best friendships and relationships that I’ve ever had,” Thune said. “I remember coming in here not knowing a single soul and was a nervous little freshman from Wisconsin. I have taken away confidence in myself, on and off the field, and leadership qualities that are going to help me in every aspect of my life. Attitude and perspective are important and what truly matters is that you are happy.”
Blitz is enjoying watching Thune prosper in her final season in a Missouri jersey – something that seemed, to both of them, to be a long-time coming in Thune’s five-year career.
“It’s so great to see somebody rewarded after a long journey,” Blitz said. “She always made an impact no matter what. For me, personally, it was just a great thing for her to be able to make an impact on the field. A lot of people don’t get these opportunities because they don’t have the optimism or resiliency to do that. She’s a great example of, if you really want to do it, you can do it if you have the right attitude and do it with grace and being a wonderful teammate.”