Abby Pieper will be the goalkeeper on Wednesday when the Williamston girls soccer team plays in the Division 3 state semifinals.
Pieper was in goal in the semifinals last season, too, when the Hornets’ state title dream ended a game short. She and her teammates were driven to get back to this spot this season.
But up until just a few months ago, it looked like Pieper might not get that chance.
Pieper returned to the field only about six weeks ago after pair of head injuries suffered in her favorite sport — hockey — left her with devastating concussion symptoms, including a loss of vision in one eye. The injuries led to more than four months of anguish for Pieper and her family.
“Throughout the whole time, there were thoughts in my head,” Pieper said. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get my vision back. I didn’t know how severe it was until the doctors told me.
“They considered it as a traumatic brain injury, like getting in a car accident and hitting your head on the steering wheel. That’s how they explained it (to me).”
The post-concussion symptoms hit about 10 days after the injury – months of nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, sleeping problems, loss of balance, never-ending trips to the doctor’s office and various types of therapy. At times, there was a lot of doubt – and, at times, a large sense of doubt both internally and externally as to whether Pieper would ever play sports again.
Soccer is the only sport Pieper plays for the Hornets, but her true passion – and her best sport – is hockey. That’s one of the reasons Pieper and her family moved to Lansing from Marquette three years ago – there were more opportunities for girls hockey players here in the Capital City than Up North.
She has been a standout on the ice playing center, first with the Meijer AAA Hockey 19U team in the 2020-21 season – tallying 12 goals and 10 assists in 40 games – before moving to the Belle Tire team this past season. And it was this past December playing club hockey where she suffered two injuries that changed everything.
The two incidents happened on back-to-back days at a tournament in Chicago. In the first game, Pieper was streaking down the ice, was then tripped by an opponent and hit the back of her head hard on the ice.
The next day, Pieper was backchecking and dove to stop an opponent on a breakaway. In doing so, she slid awkardly into the goalpost.
“In my right eye, the vision was just gone,” Pieper said. “All I remember is getting up and I thought my eye was actually out of my socket. The only reason I remember those two plays is because I’ve got the videos of them. I don’t remember going to the hospital, I don’t remember coming home.”
Pieper’s dad, Jeff, watching from the stands, initially thought Abby had broken her collarbone. But the news was much worse. As he approached the bench, he heard Abby say that she couldn’t see out of her right eye.
“I heard something I wasn’t prepared for,” Jeff said. “It was a tone I’ve never heard my daughter speak with before, so I knew that it was serious.”
Once in the emergency room, it was determined that there was no structural damage in the brain, and there was an interruption in the communication between the eyeball and the part of the brain where the vision is processed.
Doctors kept shining lights in her eye and completed numerous eye tests without response. However, on one of the final tests, using a very bright flashlight, Abby could see a flash of white light an inch from her eye.
“We left Chicago and we went back that to light and that flash so many times in a six-month period waiting for her,” Jeff said.
The long road back
Sports are the most important thing in Pieper’s life. That doesn’t make her all that different from a lot of high school-aged student-athletes. But her drive to be a success in those sports is extraordinary.
The road to recovery was filled with missed goals, doubt, a delayed return of vision and days where Pieper would have to do her schoolwork by herself in a room in the library. Her sensitivity to light and background noise could cause major headaches.
Pieper was grinding through physical, occupational and speech therapy for three-hour sessions every two or three days.
“I did not lose my speech, but with the concussion, it was hard to be able to form words and communicate properly,” Pieper said. “We also worked on my memory because it was very difficult to remember things.”
Attending school was very difficult. Pieper would try her best to alternate half-days from morning to afternoon, but every day, she’d eventually call one of her parents to pick her up.
“I didn’t have the motivation and it was giving me such bad symptoms,” Pieper said.
“The background noise was a really bad symptom. … In the library, I was allowed to turn the lights off when I wanted.”
The school tried to accommodate whatever Pieper needed to help her succeed.
“She would have trouble even at a family dinner, with people conversing, because of the background noise,” said Pieper’s mother, Leslie. “That was difficult. It took a little bit to adjust to the one eye, I think she did a great job adjusting and getting through.
“She had all A’s before (the injury), so they knew her work ethic, so that helped with them giving a little more leeway. She didn’t ask for any special treatment except for not sitting in the louder classes.”
But the journey was possibly just as big of a struggle mentally. For more than two months, Pieper had not experienced any progress in regaining her vision in her right eye. The result was extreme frustration with what seemed like a failing process.
Then came something of a turning point in February. In an attempt to boost her spirits, Pieper’s doctors allowed her to skate on the ice with her hockey team. No contact, of course.
And it worked in changing her mindset.
“It felt like a breath of fresh air,” Pieper said. “That’s when I started to really work hard during my therapy because I was like, ‘This is what I need to work hard at, and if I have the opportunity to do it again, I want to do this again.’ So that’s when I started to step up my intensity of therapy.”
Breakthrough and recovery
It was about 2 1/2 months later, in March, when her vision finally started to return. The post-concussion symptoms were still prevalent, but there seemed to at least be an end in sight.
As Jeff tells it, there were little milestones. The bright lights Pieper could only see initially turned into big bold letters, then to smaller letters, then colors and then being able to track things with her eye.
“With all of the obstacles, the determination and the perseverance … in my world, she defines a hockey player,” Jeff said.
And then, one spring day, out of nowhere, it actually happened.
It’s pretty easy for Pieper to remember the date when her full vision returned: April 19.
“I started to get a little bit of vision, and then from there it really took off,” Pieper said. “For the last few weeks, it was blurry and then it came back. It was progressively just getting better.”
Pieper also got a boost mentally when she read how similar her story was to USA women’s hockey star Amanda Kessel. Kessel suffered concussion-like symptoms similar to Pieper – the headaches, light sensitivity – and spent 18 months away from the ice.
Pieper and her family constantly referred to the website of Kessel’s doctor, Micky Collins, for information throughout the entire process.
Finally, back to the pitch
All of her doctors, and Williamston’s trainer, officially cleared Pieper to play two weeks after her full vision returned. That’s when she started for the Hornets in their May 4 soccer game against Haslett.
It wasn’t just any game, though. Haslett was ranked No. 3 in Division 2 at the time, and – like Williamston – is playing in the state semifinals on Wednesday night. And unlike the other hockey and soccer games from December to April that Pieper had circled on her calendar with the hopes of returning, this one was actually happening.
And not only did the Hornets win, but they didn’t allow a goal, winning 1-0.
“That’s her personality. She wanted that game so bad,” said Williamston coach Steve Horn. “That was the game she wanted to be back for. Things lined up perfectly so she could get back.”
Since Pieper’s return, the Hornets are 8-1, with that loss coming in a shootout.
In last year’s state semifinal, a 1-0 loss to Detroit Country Day, Pieper made 11 saves to keep Williamston close. With the top-ranked Hornets taking on third-ranked Pontiac Notre Dame Prep at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Parker Middle School in Howell, Pieper might be called upon again for a key save.
But she’ll be ready. Horn, her teammates, her parents and everybody else knows it.
“I love her mentality,” Horn said. “She has a bulldog mentality. Abby is a big-game keeper.”
Return to hockey?
Once the soccer season ends, Pieper is planning to begin playing hockey again later in the summer. She’s still chasing the dream of playing college hockey.
Pieper says she’ll need to be 100% mentally ready for it before she steps back on the ice. Her parents might be a little more nervous about it, but sports have always been Pieper’s life.
“If we took sports away from her, she wouldn’t be the same person,” Leslie said. “At this point, I think that would hurt her more.
“I just want her to succeed at whatever she chooses.”
Whether she does or doesn’t play hockey, Pieper is taking everything as a game-by-game approach.
“I’m lucky to even be playing soccer this season,” she said. “Every game I get to play, I’m thankful for everything.”