Charlene Belanger's ability to lead was evident from the time she was a freshman on the Mount Vernon girls soccer team. She unseated a senior for the starting goalkeeper position while giving advice to help her elder teammate improve.
In February of 2010, Belanger, a junior at the time, committed to play for American University. Her intangible qualities and physical talents made her a standout for the Majors, whether she was playing in goal or on the field.
One year later, Belanger made it official, signing with American on Feb. 2. The start of her senior season was one month away, but before Belanger could begin what figured to be her best season in a Majors uniform, she had to undergo what figured to be a simple surgery on her left knee. She had been having problems with the knee since November — the product of long-term awkward running, she was told — but the injury was expected to get better on its own. But after the healing process plateaued, she was scheduled for surgery.
During surgery, it was discovered Belanger's injury was worse than expected. The cartilage behind her knee cap was "completely destroyed," Belanger said, an injury not seen on an MRI. What started as a procedure that would cost Belanger a few weeks turned into season-ending surgery.
"When I went under, they said I would be able to play in three weeks — there isn't other damage, they're just cleaning up," Belanger said during a Mount Vernon practice on May 4 at the George Washington RECenter. "The first thing they told me when I woke up [on Feb. 8] is you’re out for three months. I started crying. I was bawling my eyes out."
That night, Belanger's brother Lucas, an all-state goalkeeper for the Mount Vernon boys soccer team, sent a text to girls head coach Tony Garza to inform him Belanger was out for the season. Later that night, Garza, returning home from his birthday dinner, received a call from Belanger.
"My initial [reaction], honestly, was denial," Garza said. "I really thought it was just a joke. I was like, 'Nah, she's not hurt. I think maybe it's just a bruise or something like that,' but I was in complete denial for awhile. It was a big blow to our system, I'll be honest, a very big blow. When I finally realized it was very serious, very true, I had no words. I didn't know what to say, I didn't know how to react.
"I've looked at Charlene as my own daughter in school ever since she was a freshman and it was like having news given to your own child, like your breath was taken away. When it finally settled into me, it was, 'Wow, what are we going to do?'"
WHILE BELANGER hasn't been able to help Mount Vernon on the field, the senior wasn't going to allow her misfortune to keep her from her teammates. Belanger has used her leadership skills from the sideline during the 2011 season, encouraging and instructing the Majors. She's with the team during every game and makes it to practice whenever she isn't at a physical therapy appointment, which are on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Garza thinks of her as a player/coach. Belanger describes her role as a "bridge" between players and coaches.
"I'm on the sidelines with [the coaching staff] during the games and practices, but then again, I'm with the girls all the time," Belanger said. "I can kind of fill the coaches in on what's going on with the girls and fill the girls in with what's going on with the coaches."
Belanger works with sophomore goalkeeper Alexis Lybarger, warming her up before games and giving her pointers. Lybarger started in goal during non-district games last season, allowing Belanger to play in the field, but experience as a freshman didn't prepare Lybarger for being thrust into the starting role while in the shadow of a standout.
"At first, it was nerve-wracking," Lybarger said. "I was really nervous because those are big shoes to have to fill. As the season progressed, I'm getting more and more comfortable with it and [Belanger is] definitely helping me out and so is everybody else on the field right now."
Lybarger said one of the most important things she's learned from Belanger is how to bounce back from adversity.
"Before the [season opener against West Potomac], she told me that if something happens or if something gets by me to just flush it away," Lybarger said. "In our scrimmages I would sit there and I would be mad [if something went wrong] and it affected the game. She told me just to flush it away and to be positive after [a] goal. After [a] goal ... I'm mad at myself. [During] the West Po game I got scored on — it ended up being a 1-0 game — and I sat there and said, 'Let's go ladies! Let's pick this up!' I think that's the first time I've done that since I was little."
Belanger has made the most of her situation, but things haven't been easy. Not being able to play has been an emotional challenge, especially with her brother excelling for the boys program.
"Game days are hard," Belanger said. "Those are definitely the hardest ones because I remember playing all the teams from last season. I know the good players, I know how they play, I can do this and this and I have to tell the other players that, I have to fill them in. Warmups are hard. I try to get everyone pumped and focused. I'm goofy. I try to make everyone relaxed. ...
"There's definitely sibling rivalry [with Lucas]. ... He got all-state as a freshman and this was going to be my year to get all-met. It's a little awkward because I wanted [to earn accolades], too, but I don't mind. I'm like, 'I got you next year — rookie of the year'" at American.
GARZA, AN ASSISTANT athletic director at Mount Vernon, saw how not playing took a toll on Belanger. The two used to speak often about soccer in his office. After Belanger's surgery, the soccer conversations dwindled.
"I didn't want to talk about the season because I knew it would upset her," Garza said. "She was hurt, she knew she was out for the season and every time we talked about the season you could just see her eyes water. ... I think she's handled it as best as she can. She's kept her emotions in line. There are times where I can tell she's angry and upset and you've got to let her get it out, let her be angry, let her be upset. She's been in my office numerous times angry, upset, emotional about it and my job is to comfort her, console her and do everything I can as a coach, as an athletic director and a fatherly figure to her. Sometimes I've got to let her vent and steam and she's done that just about as best as you can ask her to do."
Belanger has coached a U10 boys team for two seasons and said she would like to coach in the future, but instructing one's peers and teammates can be a difficult task. Belanger was hesitant to offer much in the way of instruction early in the season. As time has passed, she has grown comfortable in her role.
"She started off very nervous," Garza said. "Our very first game against West Potomac, she was nervous [about giving] instruction from the sideline. ... She always thought she was overstepping our toes. I think she was very nervous at first because she didn't want to overstep the coaches' toes. ... Over the season, it's progressed where she's gotten more comfortable. ... She's always asked, 'What's my limitation? Can I do this? Can I do that?'. [I tell her], 'Charlene, go as far as you can until I say, OK you kind of crossed the line,' but she hasn't ever crossed that line."
Belanger has made the transition to a new role while also having to deal with physical challenges. For more than a month after surgery, she was in a brace from her hip to her left ankle, unable to bend her knee. While the bone and cartilage were healing, her quad muscle atrophied, leaving her left thigh noticeably smaller than her right. She is in physical therapy, learning to do simple tasks she took for granted in the past.
"At physical therapy, I literally have to think to walk up the stairs," Belanger said. "You have to actually say, 'OK, these muscles are going to tighten and I have to step up. You don't ever think about it. Showering, getting in and out of the shower, you don't think about that, but when you can't do it it's like, oh, it's kind of a big deal."
Belanger said having to watch her teammates practice and play has taught her a lesson.
"Don't take anything for granted," she said. "While the drills can be monotonous and boring and training is hard, I would give anything to be able to do that instead of being injured. [I would tell people] definitely don't take it for granted and enjoy it while you can."
Belanger isn't able to run yet — "I can do this hop-skip thing, but it's ugly. It's awkward" — but hopes to be able to train for her club team, McLean Azul, by the end of May or early June. Until then, she will continue helping her Mount Vernon teammates as the Majors approach the postseason, which begins with the National District Tournament on May 16.
"She's definitely still a leader," Lybarger said. "She was a leader before and even though she's injured, she's a leader now. You can't take that away from her."