MISSOULA — As the Montana soccer team wrapped up the Big Sky Conference regular-season title last week, the work put in to achieve that team-wide goal extended off the pitch to senior Maysa Walters.
Walters didn't play as the Griz locked up the championship, because earlier this season the forward suffered a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 14, ending her season and college career prematurely.
It was a stunning and challenging loss for an athlete who has given so much to the game.
"The first few days were probably some of the worst of my life, but since then I've been able to come here and be around teammates. I'm still able to work out, which is nice," Walters told MTN Sports. "I know that's a good place for me to let some steam off, even going and doing an upper body lift right now."
It's a fitting coping mechanism for a motivated athlete, but for Walters and many other athletes who suffer severe ailments, it's the mental obstacles that are the biggest hurdle, when their lifeblood and passion are taken away in a flash.
"I keep saying it's the silver linings for sure," Walters said. "I have a lot of people in my support group which have been really helpful, and then doing weird random things that I wouldn't have thought I'd have done before. I've been buying Legos a lot. People might say it's a shopping addiction, but I think it's a good outlet to let some steam off, so right now I'm building the Statue of Liberty and the New York City landscape, so kind of nerding out on things I hadn't done before."
A Billings native, Walters took an unconventional route to this point.
After one year at Laurel High School, Walters moved to Colorado where she competed in high-level club soccer before committing to the University of New Mexico where she was a three-year starter and won two Mountain West Conference titles.
"The recruiting process for me was kind of interesting because my team had so many high-caliber players that honestly in club, a lot of kids who come from their club team where they're the star of the team, I was very much the bottom of the team," Walters, who played for Real Colorado Development Academy, said with a laugh. "I'm honestly thankful for that, though. I felt like New Mexico was a really good fit for me where a lot of kids will kind of be at the bottom and play on a good team and end up going to a Power 5 (school) and not really playing, where I felt like I found a good fit for my ability and what I wanted to study.
"I think especially the Montana kids, I think I can give them a sense of a relatability — like, look, I'm from Montana I've done this. There's no reason the rest of us can't."
But the Treasure State came calling, and Walters found her way back to Montana last year with the Grizzlies.
"I think I really found where I fit in and stood within the program, so being able to come here this fall it felt like I kind of took a role where I want to put the team on my back and show them some of the things that I really value as a player, which would be the hard work, the extra time before and after practice, and I do think I'm going to leave here knowing that I did that," Walters said.
Walters had never dealt with an injury of this magnitude before, so while battling through it as best she can, there are still some days that are tougher than others.
"It has been difficult," she said. "I think the biggest thing for me is taking things one day at a time. I've had my whole life planned out accordingly to an extent, like I'm going to go to college, I'm going to graduate from high school and go to the school I committed to, and then I graduate and then go to grad school, and after this the plan was to go overseas, so just one day at a time."
UM head coach Chris Citowicki has known Walters for a long time, and for him, it's about supporting her as best he can.
"That's been the message all year, is we're doing this together, where if you count the coaching staff and the auxiliary staff there's 38 of us total," Citowicki said. "So it's a 38-strong thing. You can't go down to 37 because Maysa is hurt, or down to 36 because somebody else is hurt. We don't remove people from this program. People who were here when we started, we finish together. Maysa still has a role to play because if she texts a freshman who is playing right now, or a sophomore, and says something that inspires and motivates that person, she is playing her new role to perfection right now.
"There are different kinds of leaders. She is a model professional where you can point at any kid in the program, and if they're complaining about something, or worried about something, just look at Maysa. She's staying late, she's arriving early, she's doing all the extra stuff. That is how you become great, and that's what she gives us."
Walters underwent successful surgery last week and now begins the rehabilitation process, as she sets her sights on finishing her masters in the spring and hopefully someday play pro soccer overseas, before returning to pursue her doctorate degree. Walters will get her masters in public health and public administration in May and already has her undergrad degree in population health with minors in psychology and sustainability studies. She also has a certificate in epidemiology.
"I also think a little bit of me gets competitive, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I want to be the fastest person back from an ACL,' and then I have to remind myself I don't want to get re-injured," she said. "So just taking the time it needs, but it's something I still really want to do. There are those fears of re-injury, but I played 1,000 soccer games and never tore it, so could happen again.
"The time since I've been injured, it has gone by in ways extremely quickly. It seems super slow, like, standing at practice and watching everybody kind of go slow, and not being able to participate in games has been hard, but other than that things are kind of moving quickly. And we all know time flies, so I think I just need to remind myself of that."
While a difficult end to her college career, Walters is every bit a part of UM's championship run this season, and she lived out a dream by repping her home state.
"Honestly, a dream come true being able to wear Montana on my chest," Walters said. "I think a lot of people acknowledge us Montana kids, which we really appreciate, because it's not easy coming out of here and competing with those bigger cities and bigger states, higher populations, so yeah, just having everybody's support has been huge and wearing Montana on my chest, I wouldn't have it any other way."