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THE GRIND: North Forsyth's Simpson working to return from ACL injury better than ever
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With only a slight limp, Haley Simpson circles the softball field at North Forsyth High School in the sweltering heat, retrieving balls that have either been fouled back or hit over the outfield fence. Anything to help practice run smoother.

She doesn't have to be there, and admits that having to watch her teammates rather than playing with them is gut-wrenching. Once the official practice ends, Simpson straps on her knee brace and steps onto the outfield with a teammate for a short throwing session. She's still learning to put pressure on her knee, and her throwing motion is more pronounced in the upper body than it would be. She's still eagerly waiting the opportunity to bat again. Hopefully that's just a few days away.

Since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in her right knee on Jan. 9, Simpson has had a long, hard road to recovery that she says is exponentially more difficult than any combined club-varsity softball routine. She visited with and eventually had her surgery from the world-famous Dr. James Andrews, who has performed ACL surgeries and Tommy John surgeries on hundreds of professional name athletes.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Simpson has rehab at Champion Physical Therapy in Cumming, working on everything from strength, stretching, balance and isometrics. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays she has a required workout sheet. All of her rehabilitation exercises are obscure—new to anyone who hasn't gone through an ACL tear. She dreads the rehab, even though she's months into the process, but knows it's only making her a tougher player.

“I just want to get back out on the field. I've got a stolen base record to break. I hope I can put it way out of reach,” Simpson said.

She's only a rising junior, but as a taller, well-spoken leader she could almost pass as a coach. Simpson, who started playing softball at 4 years old, doesn't remember a time where she wasn't playing the game—that is, until that fateful basketball game against Johns Creek at the turn of the new year.

“I knew what it was as soon as I hit the floor,” Simpson said. “I didn't want to believe it, so I was kind of in denial. I remember going to get the MRI and thinking it was a knee sprain, but my mom knew better. Once it was confirmed as an ACL tear I just had to get in the right mind to begin the rehab.”

Simpson's mother and father have gone through ACL injuries before, so the game plan has already been executed in the Simpson household. Even though Haley was already well educated about the rehab process, it was the emotional adjustments that have taken her by surprise.

“As a player, I always kind of led by example,” Simpson said. “Last season I was the leadoff hitter on the softball team and kind of just getting on base, stealing bases, that was how I expressed myself. Now I can't do anything physical at practice so I've learned a lot more about how to lead in other ways. As an upperclassman, I'm using my voice a lot more. I try to instruct at practice with some of the younger girls. I can't even show how to do stuff so I have to explain a lot.

“I don't know if I'm good at it,” she laughed, bashfully.

Simpson's payoff from recovery will be two full seasons of softball with the Lady Raiders. Even though she has played with one of the top club teams in the state—the East Cobb Bullets—her long history of being a softball player at Coal Mountain has made playing for North a priority.

“We want to win region this year,” Simpson said. “That's our goal every year, but we want to host a state game and go as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The timeline for Simpson's rehab is nine to 10 months, which means she hopes to be back a third of the way into the fall season. Already committed to play SEC softball at South Carolina, she's decided to put basketball to the side and focus on softball and track and field for the final two years of her high school tenure.

“I was really set on playing both in the beginning but the more I've rehabbed and realized how difficult this all is, I just don't want to go through it again,” Simpson said. “South Carolina has been so supportive and wanted me to do whatever I wanted, but after talking with my parents I think this is the best decision.”

So, a full-time softball player Simpson will be when she returns. She plans on being pretty good too.

“I think I'll be better, and stronger,” Simpson said. “This has been killing me, but I know it's for the best.”