A couple of weeks before her freshman season on the Gonzaga University women’s soccer team, Maddie Kemp suffered one of the most brutal injuries an athlete can experience.
Kemp was playing three-on-three with coaches when she took a wrong step, tearing her ACL, MCL and her medial and lateral meniscus.
For Washington’s Player of the Year and three-time All-American in high school, it was a devastating blow. Exactly one month after her injury, Kemp had surgery and her long road to recovery began.
“My recovery process was hard and long, and then [COVID-19] came into play," Kemp said. "So I was kind of coming back and trying to integrate while we weren’t really allowed to play with each other."
But after lots of hard work and patience to get back on the field, Kemp has made quite the recovery. Fast forward two years since her injury and Kemp, now a redshirt sophomore, is one of the main contributors on a GU team that is off to the program’s best-ever start. Prior to Wednesday's game against the University of Portland, the Bulldogs have won 10 of its first 12 matches, including an eight-game winning streak, the longest in program history.
Before falling to BYU on Oct. 2, GU was ranked No. 16 in the nation by the United Soccer Coaches National Top 25 poll. The team was nationally ranked for the first time since 2005 on Sept. 19. GU was also No. 2 in the west region, behind nationally-ranked Pepperdine University but ahead of defending national champion Santa Clara University.
As of Oct. 4, Kemp is tied for the most goals in the West Coast Conference (WCC) with eight and is tied for the No. 23 spot in the nation for total goals. She’s also tied for fifth in the country in shots on goal per game with 2.67.
While her play has been outstanding, Kemp’s performance this season is no surprise to Head Coach Chris Watkins.
“[Maddie’s] a great goal scorer and that’s what people notice first,” Watkins said. "But I think, more importantly, she knows how to win and she wants to win really bad. She studies the game. She comes into training and we’ll play three on three or five on five and she just wants to win.”
Watkins recognizes the severity of Kemp’s injury, but believes Kemp benefited from the recovery process.
“Expectations for Maddie and for Gonzaga went up when she came here and so [the injury] was really hard," Watkins said. "But I think it was important for her to learn to be a great teammate, learn to understand the game a little bit more than she did before, and I think she did well with that time."
Growing up in Camas, Washington, a small town on the state’s southern border, Kemp had nothing short of a legendary high school career. She was the most decorated player in the history of Camas High School — scoring 141 goals in four years.
While GU wasn’t originally on her radar, Kemp began heavily considering the school after Watkins’ hiring.
“I wasn’t really looking at Gonzaga, and then Coach Watkins got the job here,” Kemp said. “I came here and took a look at the school and knew the legacy coach had come from.”
Kemp’s scoring ability has clearly translated well from high school to college, but she’s playing a slightly different position than she did in her prep years. Because GU’s forwards have to cover a lot of ground and Kemp was mostly just a goal-scorer in high school, Watkins decided to drop Kemp into midfield.
“Watching her play, she just shot the ball, you get her the ball and she just shoots,” Watkins said. “She’s got to adapt a little bit so we dropped her back into midfield where you don’t have to cover as much space.”
For Kemp, the new position has been an adjustment, but it’s also taught her a lot.
"I’m playing a position I’ve never played before, and so it’s been a cool experience,” Kemp said. "It feels good to be getting back into work. It feels natural for me, and that’s been really exciting.”
Although it’s been a little while since her injury, Kemp is still dealing with some effects, but also says the experience helped prepare her for this season as she became a student of the game from the sidelines.
"I never thought I’d be the same soccer player again," Kemp said. "But [the injury] definitely taught me a lot. I feel like I know so much more stepping into this season than I would have if I was just a regular sophomore."
After its hot start, GU is now in WCC play. With games against Santa Clara and Pepperdine coming up, the Zags will be tested, something Kemp is ready for.
“I’m excited," Kemp said. "There’s been times where we haven’t been able to hang with Santa Clara or BYU or Pepperdine. I think they should be scared that they can’t hang with us now, and it’s something I think we’re ready for and it’s exciting."
Going from a star soccer player in high school to severely injured and then back to being a goal-scoring machine, Kemp’s story is impressive. And the number of adjustments she’s had to make while still being able to find success shows the power of a relentless work ethic.
Fans can watch Kemp play on Oct. 9 when the Zags host Santa Clara at 4 p.m. Live scoring updates will be available on GoZags.com.