In 2009, in her first season at the University of Maine after transferring from Syracuse University, Lelia Sacre became the first Black Bear since 2002 to earn All-American honors.
She was a WomensFieldHockey.com third-team selection.
But the season also had a downside.
Sacre became ill.
She was hospitalized and her mother had to fly in from North Delta, British Columbia, to nurse her back to health.
Sacre did wind up playing in the America East playoffs and she finished the season as Maine’s fifth-leading scorer from her center back position with five goals and eight assists while playing in 15 of their 19 games.
But the illness resurfaced.
It left her with aching joints and muscle weakness.
She missed all of the 2010 season, but stayed in school.
Sacre was eventually diagnosed with Still’s disease. The symptoms of the disease include inflammation and stiffness in the joints, a high fever and extreme fatigue.
“It’s like an onset of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis,” explained Sacre. “Sometimes my hands would be stiff and my muscles would feel like I had just gone through a really hard workout when I hadn’t.
“It’s a rare disease. Less than one percent of the population has it,” said Sacre.
A rheumatoid arthritis specialist back in British Columbia diagnosed it last May and they began experimenting with medications.
They found one that has worked and Sacre has to inject herself daily.
And she has been a key contributor for the nationally-ranked Black Bears this season with three goals and three assists in 11 games. She is also an effective defender.
Maine has won 10 straight after losing its opener to Northeastern University.
The Black Bears, currently ranked 15th in the country, will host No. 17 Albany, 8-3, in their mutual America East Conference opener Saturday at 1 p.m.
“I’m just happy to be back on the pitch,” she said. “Compared to where I was last year, I wasn’t sure this was going to happen. To be back, even just running, would have been something I would have been happy with.”
Sacre said the disease isn’t curable “but it’s manageable.
“It’s hit-or-miss. Every day, we may have to change a thing here or there. But the meds seem to be working,” she said.
Maine coach Josette Babineau said Sacre progressed last year so they were “hopeful” she could return to the team this season.
“But we didn’t know what we were going to get from her,” said Babineau. “We didn’t know how she would hold up.”
Sacre had to get back into game shape and, as Babineau pointed out, someone who has been sidelined for such a long period of time is more susceptible to injury.
Sacre has “definitely been a big part (of our success)” according to Babineau.
“She has meant a lot. We’ve eased her in at outside back. She used to be a center back,” said Babineau.
Sacre is admired by her coaches and teammates for her resiliency.
“I have been with her through this whole thing and I always felt pretty bad for her and the fact she had to go through this while being so far away from home,” said Babineau. “But she has persevered and to have her back has been great. She has been really good at accepting it.”
Senior forward Kelly Newton said it was great to have Sacre back.
“She has really fought hard to get back. It’s definitely a unique case. It has been very inspirational to see her do what she’s doing,” Newton said. “She has been a definite asset for our team.”
Junior back Zoe Adkins said “her experience is priceless. Having her back is only positive.”
Sacre has a place in her heart for her teammates and the support they have given her.
“Last year was definitely a mental challenge but the girls were so great. They still made me feel like I was part of the team,” said Sacre.
She said she feels “good” but admits that it was “rough getting back into shape.”
She credited Babineau and trainer Paula Linder for their roles in her recovery.
“Paula and Coach and everyone has been really accommodating and really supportive,” said Sacre. “I may be struggling with those wind sprints but they know I’m going to get it done.
“Some days I still struggle with the fitness aspect of the game. But I’m just happy to be back on the field,” she said.
And she is ecstatic about Maine’s season to date.
“It has been pretty amazing what this team has done so far,” said Sacre. “It has been great. It has been real exciting to see. Every day, these girls bring their best. They always work toward being better. That’s why we’re in the position we’re in now.”
In recent weeks, Babineau has occasionally returned her to the center back spot.
“She is still capable of doing that,” said Babineau. “Distributing the ball has always been her strength. She sees the field so well. And she has an incredible aerial ball to get us out of pressure.”
Sacre is used in all aspects of penalty corners.
“We use her in a utility role on corners,” said Babineau. ‘She can insert the ball, she can be a hitter or she can be a side player. It’s fun to have that option and to be able to do that with her.”
Sacre hopes to keep contributing and help the team achieve its goal.
“We want to win the America East championship,” said Sacre.
It would be the Bears’ first league title and would earn them their first berth to the NCAA Tournament.