ALBANY — At one point in her college career, Saint Rose women’s soccer player Morgan Burchhardt was told it might be over, that her left knee might not cooperate enough to allow her to finish out her playing days with the Golden Knights on her terms.
Fast-forward a couple years, and Burchhardt is still at Saint Rose, still playing soccer and still with a chance to get back to the Division II national semifinals. Now a sixth-year senior, her head coach Laurie Darling Gutheil describes Burchhardt as “the voice of our program.” The former Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School standout has kept charging forward, using her talent and leadership qualities to help bring Saint Rose to the Sweet 16.
“I’m just very thankful I’m still here,” Burchhardt said Thursday, a night ahead of Saint Rose’s NCAA tournament matchup with Molloy that will be played at 1 p.m. Friday at Afrim’s Sports Park in Colonie.
Saint Rose, the top seed in the East Region, brings a 19-2-1 record into its matchup with Molloy, a squad the Golden Knights defeated 2-1 earlier this season. If Saint Rose gets past Molloy a second time and claims the East Region title, it will play Sunday against the winner of Friday’s 10 a.m. matchup for the Atlantic Region title between Bloomsburg and West Chester at Afrim’s Sports Park.
And, if Saint Rose gets through Sunday with its season still alive, it’ll head to its first Final Four since 2014 . . . all the way back when Burchhardt was a freshman.
Burchhardt played a major role during that 21-1-3 season, starting in 24 games that season, and registering eight goals and 11 assists. Her sophomore season, Burchhardt had nine goals and 12 assists for a team-best 30 points.
Then, early in the 2016 season — her “original junior year,” as Burchhardt calls it — she tore her left ACL. Season-ending surgery followed, but the injured knee never felt quite right despite the way she attacked her rehabilitation. She played one game during the 2017 season, then had to go through another round of surgery and recovery with no guarantee she’d be able to make it back onto the field for Saint Rose.
But Burchhardt’s second surgery on her left knee was more successful than the first, and she played in every game of last year’s 13-5-4 season, contributing seven goals and 12 assists. This season, she’s scored one goal and dished 14 assists in 16 games, and was a Northeast-10 Conference first-team selection for the second time in her career for a program she never considered leaving despite all the obstacles she faced.
“I picked this school for a reason,” the 23-year-old Burchhardt said. “I’m very close with all of the coaching staff, and I knew we could figure out a plan for me — and implement it — here.”
Darling Gutheil said she first started tracking Burchhardt when the player was a freshman at Burnt Hills. Burchhardt won four Section II championships with the Spartans, and her style of play reminded Darling Gutheil of Eliza Whipple, another former Burnt Hills standout who then starred at Saint Rose.
Darling Gutheil figured Burchhardt could be a star at Saint Rose, too, but said the sixth-year senior had “exceeded all of our expectations, on and off the field.” The coach described Burchhardt as “like a daughter” to her, and that Burchhardt has led the program’s pursuit of a return to the Final Four as much as anyone this season.
There is more to Saint Rose’s success, of course, than the drive and contributions of one player. The team’s top player is senior Nina Predanic, this year’s Northeast-10 Conference Player of the Year, while five Saint Rose players have scored at least 14 points this season. Besides Predanic earning the Northeast-10 Conference’s top individual award, senior Deanna Trongone was named the league’s top defensive player, junior Marika Laurendeau was recognized as the conference’s best goalie and freshman Olivia Boucher was honored as the league’s top rookie. The Golden Knights are well-rounded, and have won their last eight games for a reason.
“We’ve been hitting our stride at the perfect time,” Darling Gutheil said.
That’s ideal for Burchhardt, a three-time captain for Saint Rose who is trying to extend her college career as long as possible. After reaching the Final Four as a freshman, her coach understands how much it would mean for the player to make it back to the national semifinals all these years later.
“Her and I, for the last five years, we’ve been working to get this program back to there,” Darling Gutheil said. “It’s been a team effort amongst us.”
And it’ll take a team effort for Saint Rose to extend its season beyond this week. The Golden Knights, Burchhardt said, know that.
“We’re just waiting for that whistle to blow,” Burchhardt said, “and for the game to start.”