BERNARDSVILLE, NJ -- Where there's a will, there's supposed to be a way.
But even with a strong will, some goals might seem unattainable.
When Will Luik shattered his shin bone in an international competition last May, there didn't appear to be any way the Bernards soccer player would be standing with his teammates six months later celebrating a state championship to which he made a major contribution.
But there was Luik, a junior midfielder, with the rest of the Mountaineers after they'd just defeated Delran, 2-0, last Sunday at Kean University for the Group 2 state championship.
And while he was reveling in the celebration, Luik was also eager to explain to a member of the sports media just how much he had overcome to be on that Kean turf hoisting a championship trophy. He pointed to his right leg, rolled down his sock and started to describe the surgically inserted screws that were holding his ankle together.
Last spring, Luik was invited, along with his Bernards teammate Gilberto Ferreira, to participate in an international tournament Youth Cup organized by Bayern Munich as part of his participation in Global Premier Soccer's club program. They headed to Germany for a tournament that, frankly, Luik was vacillating on participating in.
"I play lacrosse too, and I had to leave the (Bernards) lacrosse team for first two games of state tournament to go to Germany," Luik said. "The lacrosse team was playing lower-seeded teams, but when I was away, our lacrosse team was upset. (Some people at the school were) trying to convince me not to go to Germany, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity."
It turns out that the team for which Luik was playing did win the championship in Germany, but he was in no position to celebrate at that point.
"I got hurt in last five minutes of the game," Luik said. "I was dribbling up left side, I planted my right foot, and the opposing center back tried to slide tackle the ball away from me. He went straight through my leg. I knew right away, laying down, something was definitely wrong."
Luik had a fractured fibula and displaced ankle that was no longer connected properly after the injury. "The ankle spacing was 15 mm when it should have been 5 mm," Luik said. "I broke it in Germany, and the doctor there said the recovery time would be about four to six weeks. But when I came back to the states, I got re-evaluated, and the doctor said I’d need surgery."
The procedure, which Luik underwent on May 23, entailed the insertion of 10 screws and a plate and a plastic band around his ankle.
"They told me it would be about six months for a full recovery," Luik said. "The plan was I would start walking on July 1. That's when I was allowed to put weight on it. One month to weight bearing. I remember when they told me, i called my team and coach (Joe) LaSpada, and I thought maybe I’d sneak in (to the lineup) before end of states (the tournament beginning the end of October). I didn’t want to get my hopes up, so my thought then was, 'Probably not'."
When pre-season practice began in August, Luik was coming to those workouts in a walking boot, just to be around the team. He was not allowed to start practicing himself until early September.
"I was not allowed to have contact until about Oct. 1. After Oct. 1, I played my first game against Warren Hills. My first practice I could not even jog, it was more of a gallop. I’d ease myself into it."
"Will never lost his determination to be a contributor to the team this year," Bernards head coach Joe LaSpada said. "Every time we had conversations, Will would say things are great and going well. He never wavered, pushed through his physical therapy, and the doctors were in amazement. When told he could start non contact practices he was like a little kid on Christmas day."
In addition to allowing his leg and ankle to heal properly, Luik faced the additional challenge of regaining his stamina for extended runs on the pitch, and that proved to be just as difficult a hurdle to clear.
"My goal was always 10 laps, and regaining my wind was really hard," Luik said. "I didn’t really regain that until around the point when states started. I was absolutely pooped after games."
Luik said in one of his first games back, he still had trouble turning, and LaSpada was concerned about the type of soccer the opposing team was playing against Luik.
"When I first came back, it was really tight and I couldn’t turn properly to the right. It was more of a wide sloping turn if I wanted to turn around," Luik said. "In one of my first games, coach was really scared because our opponent was chippy, and my coach almost had a heart attack (at the thought of contact)."
"His first game back the team embraced Will's return and cheered every time he did something special," LaSpada said. "In that game, he was dribbling the ball and got tackled really hard from behind and we all cringed hoping he would be OK. I asked him how he felt and his comment was, 'OK, OK. I just wanted to see how a hard tackle would feel on my ankle and leg'. We all smiled and said 'That's Will'."
As the post-season proceeded, the Will Luik who was good enough to be selected to the Skyland Conference all-division team last year, and who was selected to play in an international tournament, started to emerge again. Bernards defeated higher-seeded Harrison to win the sectional championship, withstood pressure from Jefferson to win, 2-1, in the Group 2 state semifinal, and then shut out Delran to win its second state title in four years.
Many viewed this Bernards championship as one that came a year ahead of schedule, since the Mountaineers started only one senior. And they might not have won the hardware without a great defensive sequence by Luik in the final game.
With Bernards clinging to a 1-0 lead with 12 minutes left in the second half, Bernards goalkeeper Elliot Dietrich came out from inside the net to help on a ball in the box, and before a Delran player could take advantage of the momentary empty net opportunity, Luik--who'd converted from center back to midfielder--came in behind Dietrich and cleared the ball out of the box with a header that sent the ball back toward midfield and out of peril.
"Will embraced playing in the midfield, saying 'I will play anywhere to help the team be successful'," LaSpada said. "Will added to our already talented midfield and complemented them well. It is poetic justice that Will headed away the tying goal for Delran off our goal line.
"Will," LaSpada said, "is a warrior."
Of the play, Luik said, "We always do a drill in practice, when the ball is in the air, run behind person just in case they lose it. The ball was up in the air, and Delran's left back kicked it in to striker. Elliot comes out a lot, so I was used to covering him a lot. Their striker flicked it in thinking another player would run onto it. Coach (LaSpada) told me that I needed to be more aggressive--I had a concussion two years ago--and I was always scared about heading the ball since then. But, in this case, I thought to myself, 'Will you’re gonna have to head this'."
"I haven’t had too many headers. I saw the ball bouncing and didn’t want to risk missing it. It just kind of happened. I didn’t notice it was a goal-saving play until I saw it on video afterwards."
When Bernards finished off its 2-0 victory, Luik had become part of another championship, less than six months after the prestigious international championship he was part of left him seriously injured.
"Playing in Germany was a once in a lifetime opportunity," Luik said, "but I feel like winning the state championship for the school was still a lot bigger; a lot more important. In Germany, we played teams from all over the world, and we played for America, but winning the states in front of your own fans and your own town, that was even bigger."