By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy, Special to SI.com, from RISE
The first time Wissahickon field hockey coach Lucy Gil spoke to Katie O'Donnell, the incoming freshman was telling her new coach she wouldn't be able to make the start of preseason practice.
Ordinarily, that wouldn't be the best way for a player to make a good first impression. But O'Donnell is anything but ordinary. The reason she wasn't able to make it to the start of training camp was because she was traveling with the U.S. Under-16 National Team.
"I told her that would be just fine then," Gil says with a laugh.
Three years later, O'Donnell is still walking that tight rope, balancing her world-class athletic ambitions with a normal teenage life. In that time, the senior center midfielder has continued her progression, developing into arguably the nation's top high school field hockey player. She has been the youngest player on both the U.S. Under-21 squad and the U.S. Women's National Team and is the youngest player in U.S. history to play in an international game.
O'Donnell has traveled all over the world thanks to her field hockey skills, but sometimes the only place she wants to go is to a Wissahickon football game on Friday night.
"My life looks like a fantasy to a lot of people, and it is amazing going to all these countries to play, but it's also extremely difficult," says
O'Donnell. "I'm missing two to three weeks of school and then have all this makeup work when I come back. And all my friends are talking about midnight bowling or the football and basketball games they went to."
That's why this year O'Donnell chose Wissahickon. Despite her out-of-this-world talents, she wanted to be a regular teenager. O'Donnell spent her summer in Virginia Beach, Va., trying out for a spot on the World Cup team that competed in Spain this fall. She wasn't one of the initial 16 players chosen, but she could have tried out for one of the final two spots on the team.
That meant she would have had to go back to Virginia Beach Friday through Monday for three weeks in September, forcing her to miss six more days of school and several Wissahickon field hockey games. If she made the team, she'd miss another three weeks of school.
At first, O'Donnell wanted to do it. She'd always been able to balance things and didn't see why this would be different. This is, after all, someone who arrived home from her summer of field hockey at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning and was up four hours later for the first day of school.
O'Donnell talked it over with her parents, however, and agreed it would be best to pass up the opportunity, knowing she'd have plenty of chances to play in future World Cups and Olympics.
But there was only going to be one senior year at Wissahickon.
"I really wanted to go, so that was a hard decision," says O'Donnell, who will turn 18 in December. "But now I'm glad I didn't. We have homecoming and I get to go and see all of my friends who graduated last year."
Now that O'Donnell has returned from a summer of playing with the country's top collegiate and post-collegiate players on the National Team, it's almost unfair what she does to high school competition. She's good enough to be a dominant college player right now, so she's completely unstoppable on the high school level.
"When she's going toward the goal, it looks like everyone else is standing still and she's the only one moving," Gil says.
O'Donnell, who recorded 24 goals and nine assists as a junior despite missing five weeks traveling with national teams, has used her speed and superb stick skills to score at will. Earlier this year, she notched her 100th career goal, a milestone even more impressive when you consider she has missed substantial time over the last four years due to national obligations.
Gil has seen those qualities in her star player ever since O'Donnell's first year, when she became one of the first freshmen to ever play varsity at Wissahickon.
"The minute I saw her, I knew she was going to stay with varsity, and she started every game that year," Gil says. "The thing that stands out most about her is that she's so quick. She is so single-minded that she will take the ball and get to the goal."
O'Donnell's ability to contribute right away wasn't a surprise. After all, Gil knew she was getting a talented player ever since that first phone call. But beyond simply making varsity, O'Donnell's combination of talent and will to win catapulted her to superstardom from the beginning.
During her freshman campaign, O'Donnell helped lead Wissahickon to the District 1 title, scoring the game-winner in double overtime to clinch the championship. But it was an earlier playoff game that Gil remembers most fondly. Trailing 3-2 with 10 minutes left and the season on the line, O'Donnell simply took over, scoring two goals to give Wissahickon a 4-3 win.
"It was as if she decided we weren't going to lose," says Gil, who has guided Wissahickon to the Class AAA state semifinals each of the past three seasons. "She single-handedly scored twice."
But really, how could O'Donnell have been intimidated by a simple one-goal deficit? She grew up playing field hockey with her sisters, former Drexel players Jenny and Kelly, twins who are 10 years older than she is and who never gave her an inch. She's always been among the youngest -- if not the youngest -- on her national teams and has learned not to be scared despite her age and 5-foot-1 frame.
One of the few times O'Donnell did feel awe and intimidation was during her first major international competition in 2005 at the Junior World Cup in Chile.
"I was wide-eyed and I didn't really know any of the girls and most of them were in college," O'Donnell says. "It was such a great experience I can't even describe it. It makes me smile just thinking about it and how lucky I am to be one of the few to experience it.
"The first time I put on my jersey I was like, 'Wow, I'm wearing the USA uniform,'" she adds.
For now, however, O'Donnell is content wearing the Wissahickon uniform, knowing there's plenty of time in the future for her inevitable international career.