By Chris Brookes
In the second of this series looking back on Boston Breakers days gone by with ex-players, one-time defender Katherine Donnelly is the focus. The 23-year-old was part of the squad to finish first in the Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite) regular season in 2012. Now color commentator for the Breakers amongst her endeavours, she reflects on her time with the team and more.
Raised in Londonderry, N.H., high school and college standout athlete Katherine’s two seasons representing the Terriers at Boston University paved the way for her opportunity with the Breakers. With the 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) season the league’s last before folding, the team joined the WPSL Elite for 2012.
The Breakers had held onto midfielder Leslie Osborne, and with fellow U.S. Women’s National Team names in defender Cat Whitehill and midfielder Heather O’Reilly arriving, there was invaluable experience to draw upon. Katherine was one of the rookies on the roster, but had circumstances turned out as she initially expected, she would have been playing her soccer on a different continent.
“I was a senior at Boston University when the league got word it probably was not going to come back,” she explained. “That was disappointing to hear, but I started looking at my options overseas after that. I was actually pretty committed to heading to Europe when things turned around here and the league was going to return. Soon after that, I got contacted by the Breakers’ head coach at the time (Lisa Cole) and headed in for preseason.”
In four years on the varsity soccer team at Londonderry High School, Katherine scored 21 goals and set a school record by playing 68 career games. While at the College of Holy Cross, she was named on the All-Patriot League First Team in 2008 and 2009, with eight goals and three assists in her first year earning her the Patriot League Rookie of the Year accolade.
Katherine went into her season with the Breakers off the back of being named on the America East All-Conference First Team in her senior year at Boston University. She describes some of the sacrifices that were required as she prepared to realise her long-held ambition of becoming part of the organization.
“It was a no-brainer for me, even with the uncertainty of the league. I grew up watching the Breakers, and it was always a dream of mine to play pro for Boston.
“It was definitely an unusual spring semester as a college student, though. Instead of partying every night like most kids were, I was driving back and forth from workouts and class every day. I definitely got some strange looks when I showed up late to my lecture halls still dressed with my soccer gear on. It was all worth it though.”
The Breakers took part in the eight-team WPSL Elite along with fellow ex-WPS members the Chicago Red Stars and Western New York Flash. Despite the temporary loss of a fully professional league, 2012 was most definitely a memorable season for the Breakers, who finished three points clear at the top of the regular season table.
This was despite the 3-2 victory over Western New York on May 26 being retrospectively awarded as a 1-0 win to the Flash due to a delay in the paperwork for the Breakers’ Melissa Henderson being cleared with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Henderson, who recently appeared against Boston for FC Kansas City at Harvard Stadium, had played the full game against the Flash, and as a result of the decision, Katie Schoepfer’s hat-trick was also ruled out.
Katherine Donnelly in action against the New England Mutiny in 2012 (Photo By Meg Linehan)
Nevertheless, 11 wins from 14 games sent the Breakers into the playoffs, and Katherine had contributed two assists en route. In addition to her part in Kyah Simon’s goal in the 4-0 win at FC Indiana, she set up Henderson for her first Breakers goal in a 3-1 win at home to ASA Chesapeake Charge.
The Chesapeake game took place in front of 2,026 at Dilboy Stadium, and it was a fitting way to send O’Reilly off to the London Olympics. The three points that night put the Breakers into pole position in the table, from where they would go on to see the job through for the regular season.
Captained by Osborne, it was a team that produced results, and Australian international Simon led the way with her 12 goals. The blend of youth and experience, but crucially with talent throughout, served the Breakers well that season and Katherine took immense satisfaction from being amongst such a group.
“Our team had great chemistry, and since the league was so uncertain up until that point, we all took comfort knowing that everyone on the team was there for the same reasons. We all loved this game and wanted to play; it was never about the money or any of that. We genuinely wanted to see this league continue and expand, and it was refreshing to be with so many girls who shared the same attitude. We had great success as a team that year, almost every game was sold out, and we were regular season champs.”
Boston faced the Chicago Red Stars in the semifinal of the playoffs at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. The Breakers’ preparations were hit as Cat Whitehill, in New York City providing Olympic commentary, was not permitted to fly to Rochester in time for the game.
She was replaced in Cole’s lineup by Courtney Jones who would have to be substituted after 13 minutes. Her replacement was Katherine, and she took to the field in the biggest game of her career despite having yet to start for the team. Goals from Lauren Fowlkes, Lori Chalupny, and Ella Masar put Chicago in firm control of the game, and despite Amanda DaCosta restoring some pride for the Breakers late on, it finished 3-1 to the Red Stars.
Despite the loss, the 2012 campaign ranks as the best in franchise history for the Breakers, and for Katherine it was a period in which she got to live out her dream. The semifinal was all the more memorable for her as boyfriend, Adam Clendening, a former Boston University hockey player now with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, was in attendance.
“My boyfriend is from that part of New York, so he was able to come out and watch the game, which was special for me. He’s a hockey player, but even he said it was an exciting match,” she said. “Our playoff run ended earlier than we had wished, but it was a cool experience for me to even be able to play in a setting like that against Chicago in front of so many fans. It is definitely something I will always remember and cherish for the rest of my life.”
A member of the New Hampshire Olympic Development Program team for five years, Katherine took part in gymnastics and ran track competitively while at school. Back problems began when she was relatively young and ultimately took the decision to step away from playing soccer out of her hands after the 2012 season.
Katherine Donnelly, right, goes up for a header against Kristie Mewis in a BU/BC game in 2011 (Photo By Ryan Wood)
“In high school, I obtained a stress fracture in my lower back after a track meet. I was in a back brace for a few months,” she said. “Since then, I’ve done physical therapy, acupuncture, anything and everything to try and make it better. During my college seasons, I would get cortisone shots to help deal with the pain. Ultimately, and unfortunately, the decision was kind of made for me. My dad and three of my other relatives also have back problems and have all had surgery, so it was inevitable.
“I didn’t want to have surgery at such a young age, so as hard as it was for me to hang up my cleats; my health has to come first. Right before preseason, I went in to see my back doctor, and this time he really put his foot down about me going back to play.”
With a degree in Marketing, Katherine wanted to stay in sports post-playing, and having interned in other industries, she never felt that same fulfilment as when involved with athletics. After working in baseball, her path eventually led her back to Boston, and not just with the Breakers.
“I am the Marketing and Communications Manager full time with the Boston Cannons, which is the professional lacrosse team here in Boston. I do all of the PR, marketing, advertising, media, etc. which is fun and exciting for me to be able to help grow this sport grassroots as well, especially in such an awesome and sports-driven city and market,” she said. “The Cannons also play at Harvard Stadium, and we average about 10,000 fans at every game. Before working here, I didn’t know much about lacrosse, but now it is just as exciting for me to watch this sport and league continue to grow.
“There are a lot of comparisons with the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) and MLL (Major League Lacrosse) for sure.”
Aside from the Cannons, Katherine is of course regularly in attendance at Harvard Stadium as she provides the color commentary for the live online stream of each home Breakers game. Working alongside play-by-play commentator Scott Sudikoff, it is her task to offer analysis and to bring in her first-hand experience and knowledge of the game.
Even for those who have tried broadcasting before in some capacity, it can be extremely daunting taking on a prominent role and going live to expectant listeners. Now with seven games under the belt, Katherine is becoming more and more accustomed to the job, but she is thankful for her co-pilot.
“It is definitely a new experience for me, but I am always up for a new challenge,” she said. “I had some internships and classes at BU in broadcasting, so I was familiar with the ground work coming into it, but Scott does such a great job. He makes it easy for me and lets me just talk soccer, while he does all the hard work. More than anything though, I just like being part of this organization again - so far, so good.”
Once part of a Boston University Terriers defense that kept the opposition at bay for 1,260 consecutive minutes (in 2010), Katherine ended her college career with 45 appearances to her name. Even as an accomplished up-and-coming player at the time, surely anyone could be forgiven for being initially taken aback at getting to play alongside the individuals they once watched from the stands.
For Katherine, that was certainly the case and along with others she recalls the support afforded her by current Breakers defender, assistant coach, and one of the team captains, Cat Whitehill.
“I grew up watching some of these players like Leslie Osborne, Cat Reddick, Whitehill now of course, HAO (Heather O’Reilly), and my assistant coach was none other than Kristine Lilly,” she said. “After getting over the initial shock that these idols were now my teammates, I really learned a tremendous amount from them, and they were always so willing to help out and give pointers.
“Cat was probably the biggest influence on me since we played the same position and she was also so lucky to have me as a roommate on the road! She is such a great leader. Even when I knew I wasn’t going to be able to return to play because of my back she sent me a nice message, and we still stay in touch. The same with Leslie and a handful of the other girls that are still playing on the team now. It’s nice to be around them still and to be involved.”
Whether your career is long and distinguished, or over much sooner than planned, as Katherine’s was, soccer can be incredible for its life lessons. It requires that bit extra in terms of character and will to make the kind of sacrifices that are needed to progress in the game, and Katherine knows all about that.
While she never wanted to give up stepping onto that field, not a second of her playing days went to waste thanks to the memories and what she learned from the game.
“I had the most supporting family growing up; I think they were even more upset when I had to stop playing than I was,” she said. “It is such an identity shock when you have this constant in your life for so many years, and then one day you’re just done. I still miss playing a lot. I think I always will, but soccer will be a part of me and my life forever. Being on a team always gave me the opportunity to play in so many places I never would have seen, meet so many amazing teammates, and learn from some of the best coaches in the world. Some people don’t get it, or ask why you play when the money isn’t great, or why you miss so many social events because you have a game or are tired from a hard practice. I would never take back any of it, and if I had to go through it all again I wouldn’t change a thing.
“As cliché as it might sound, soccer really gave me all the tools I need to succeed in life; to be dedicated, to be driven, to be a team player, and most importantly, to always have fun. There is a reason it is considered the most beautiful game in the world.”
The Breakers association with Katherine remains, even if her vantage point on game days is now somewhat loftier than it was back in WPSL Elite. Those who deeply love the game never forget that feeling they had as a kid when all they wanted was to play, and the freedom and happiness that brought. For Katherine, there is still a place for a symbol of that childhood dream.
“I’m not even lying, I still have a Mia Hamm poster in my bedroom at my parents’ house,” she said. “I don’t think I will ever have the heart to take it down. It will always be a constant reminder to me to push myself like she did. Although my goals and aspirations have changed from a soccer field to an office, my work ethic will always stay the same. I still remember watching her play in the WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association) when the Breakers played at Nickerson Field at BU. Talk about coming full circle.”
Follow Chris Brookes on Twitter @chris_brookes