As a big collision sent her tumbling to the ground, Kiara Oliver suspected her junior year was coming to an unceremonious end.
Having already drawn preliminary attention from college programs, Oliver had big plans for her 2018-19 season with Liberty High School girls soccer team. But just weeks into the season, those plans were derailed.
In a Dec. 14 game against Clovis West, Oliver, the team's center back, attempted to chase down a pass in heavy traffic. After colliding with an opponent, she felt a pop in her left knee.
While adrenaline can sometimes delay the realization that a serious injury has occurred, Oliver says her knee went completely numb, destroying any belief that this was an injury she could simply walk off.
"I couldn't feel anything," she said. "The fact that I couldn't move it just freaked me out even more because I've never been in that situation. I was just nervous and scared to see what really happened."
A trip to the doctor confirmed her greatest fears. Oliver, who had to be carried off the field following the injury, had suffered a season-ending torn ACL.
"I was devastated," she said of the prognosis. "It was primetime for recruitment so it was really harsh to get through all that."
Knowing major momentum had been lost on the recruiting trail, Oliver turned all her attention to rehabbing her knee, and within weeks, was told by her surgeon that the injury was healing at an accelerated rate. By August, she'd been cleared to return to athletic competition.
Before testing the knee on the more unpredictable playing surface of the soccer field, Oliver looked to strengthen her knee on the volleyball court, playing a key role as a defensive specialist on a Liberty team that went 26-7 and was the co-champion of the Southwest Yosemite League.
While tentative at times on the court early in the fall, Oliver says her confidence in her knee had significantly improved by the time she got back on the soccer field in December.
After nearly a year away from the game, she had plenty of lost time to make up for and knew any timidness in her play could hurt her chances to reach the next level.
"When I go onto the field, obviously it's in the back of my mind that I don't want to hurt my knee again," Oliver said. "But it's not really something I worry about because I feel like that messes up my whole game. I was just ready to go."
Even if she wasn't immediately at 100 percent, Oliver still found ways to contribute in her senior season. She scored her first post-injury goal in a 3-0 win over Frontier on Jan. 10.
And after moving from center back to the more defensive holding midfield position, she was an instrumental part of a Patriot defense that pitched five consecutive shutouts late in SWYL play. This stout performance helped Liberty, which won 36 of 40 conference games in Oliver's high school career, capture a fourth-straight league title.
And with a full year of competition on the surgically repaired knee under her belt, coaches believe Oliver's best soccer is in front of her.
"I don’t think she was 100 percent in March and February, but now that she’s had some time to rest and actually strengthen and do some work over the summer, I see her being a big-time player," Liberty coach Brandon "Boog" Hearron said. "I think she'll come back even stronger."
She'll get the chance to do so at the Division I level.
While some seemed scared off by Oliver's injury, Cal State Bakersfield coach Sebastian Vecchio set his sights on landing her almost immediately after taking the Roadrunner job in 2018, and never doubted her ability to make a full recovery.
"She's such a good athlete and such a smart, hard-working kid that I never had any concerns with her coming back to full strength," Vecchio said of Oliver, who committed to CSUB this summer. "The injury was never an issue."
Oliver, whose father Jason was a football standout at USC, said she is excited to have the opportunity to compete at the same school where her mother, Nicole, was a four-year letter winner in track and field.
Sadly, that opportunity has yet to come. With COVID-19 forcing the cancelation of fall sports at CSUB, Oliver is at risk of missing out of a season for the second time in three years.
But her outlook is much more positive now than it was during her lost junior season of high school. As hope remains that the college season will pick up in January, Oliver says she's enjoying the opportunity to workout out with her teammates and is eager to see how her skills will translate to the collegiate level.
"(During the injury) I couldn't do anything. I could barely walk," she said. "Now I'm actually able to do things. I'm not just laying in bed with my leg (raised). It's tough but I'm so excited for the season to start."