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Chronic Lyme disease battle doesn’t derail UMass women’s lacrosse star Katie Ferris

COURTESY THOM KENDALL/UMASS
University of Massachusetts senior Katie Ferris has not allowed chronic Lyme disease to derail her career.

COURTESY THOM KENDALL/UMASS University of Massachusetts senior Katie Ferris has not allowed chronic Lyme disease to derail her career.

By MATT VAUTOUR @GazetteUMass
Friday, May 2, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, May 3, 2014)

Then a junior and arguably the best offensive player to ever play at the University of Massachusetts, Ferris was a shell of herself. She’d spent most of the hours before the game first in bed and then at the UMass health center receiving treatment.

But pale and weakened, she was on the field, attempting to look strong enough to warrant the defensive attention Duquesne would naturally give the league’s offensive player of the year.

Ferris was battling chronic Lyme disease, a secret she and her teammates had kept throughout the season. Ferris played well enough to lead the team with 52 goals and 23 assists, and was selected as a third-team All-American.

While the symptoms typically wax and wane, the final month of the lacrosse season was a particularly bad flare-up for Ferris.

Knowing opponents would still face-guard her, UMass coach Angela McMahon allowed Ferris to stay on the field as a decoy to draw Duquesne’s best defender and free her teammates. Ferris attempted one shot and even had an assist on Cori Murray’s goal late in the first half that gave UMass the lead for good.

The Minutewomen scored the first six goals of the second half to pull comfortably ahead, allowing Ferris to watch most of the second half sitting under a tent. Afterward, Ferris simply said she was ill, and appeared to be over it when she scored four times in an NCAA tournament first-round win over Connecticut.

But the truth was, she might never be entirely over it.

An instant star

Ferris was a standout from the moment she arrived on campus. She scored five goals in her second game and was off and running. She broke UMass’ single-season goal record as a freshman with 56 and ranked 11th in the nation in scoring.

She followed that with an outstanding sophomore season breaking her own record with 59 goals. She also expanded the passing dimension of her game with 39 assists.

Nothing seemed out of reach in her final two seasons.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that is contracted through the bite of an infected tick or, less commonly, from the scratch of an infected animal like a cat. If caught early, it can be contained and cured quickly with antibiotics, but left untreated, the symptoms can be long-lasting and more severe. Because there was no obvious mark, Ferris thinks a bite was either hidden under her shoulder-length blonde hair or she was scratched. Either way, Ferris likely had the disease for months before being diagnosed in November 2012.

“By the time they figured it out, I was so sick and couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I reacted funny to all the medicine.”

During her worst stretches, Ferris spent most days exhausted and ill. For an athlete, day-to-day joint pain might have been the worst symptom. Her fingers would seize up. On cold or rainy days her elbows felt stiff and even now, her knees hurt most of the time.

“The last month of lacrosse last year I wasn’t going to class, I was in my bed all day long,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to go outside. I was only outside for our games. It was 90 degrees out and I was in a hoodie and sweatpants because I was freezing.”

When she returned in the fall, the symptoms had lessened, but her body, which had been honed by her lifelong athletic training, had been decimated. She had to find the balance of pushing herself hard enough to regain her form without pushing so hard to trigger a flare-up.

“When I started off in the fall, I had zero muscle,” she said.

Ferris had to plan her entire day to keep her body in balance. She monitored her nutrition more than ever before and napped at least once a day.

“I found the line and I was trying to make sure I didn’t cross it,” she said. “I’ve adjusted to it and what hurts more and what doesn’t. I’ve figured what to eat and what not to eat. I map out a nap every day. I have to, or I couldn’t do the whole day. I go to bed pretty early.”

Fellow senior Kelsey McGovern, who lives with Ferris, marveled at her teammate’s ability to persevere.

“It was something that’s really impressive. It’s a reflection of her character,” McGovern said. “Seeing her battle through that every day, off the field, on the field and at home, it was hard to watch, but she’s someone that keeps pushing through. She found ways to manage fatigue and pain.”

Ferris said she’s far from 100 percent, but on the field it’s impossible to tell she’s struggling. Ferris with Lyme disease is still a more potent offensive player than all but nine players in Division I. Her 79 points (42 goals and 37 assists) lead the Atlantic 10 and is 10th in the nation. Ferris needs seven points to move into the top 15 in NCAA career scoring.

Still, she admitted she wonders what could have been.

“It really stinks. Last year, I could have been so much better and that would have translated into this year,” said Ferris, who said she took for granted being healthy before. “But compared to last year, it’s like night and day. I appreciate it more because of how hard I had to work to get to where I am. I had to push through it because I want to win. I want to win more than anything.”

McMahon thought the experience made Ferris a harder worker.

“She went through a whole lifestyle change becoming so much healthier and conscious of improving her strength and lifting. I’m not sure she would have had the appreciation for those things if she had not gone through this experience,” McMahon said. “She could get away with not being fit and still score 40 or 50 goals in a season because she’s that skilled and talented. When she does focus on all those X-factors that can help make her a better player, that’s really elevated her game to the next level.”

Capping her career

On Thursday Ferris won her third straight Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award. The honor came three days after she was named the first-ever recipient of UMass’ Dr. Ralph Award. Named for longtime former UMass team doctor James Ralph, the award is for an athlete who overcame injury or illness and was given at Monday’s annual sports banquet. The award was selected by the UMass sports medicine staff and presented by Jeff Smith, the school’s associate athletic director for sports medicine. With Ferris’ permission, Smith made the first public revelation of what Ferris has been battling for the past two years.

“She battled a systemic disease and continued to excel in her sport,” Smith said during the presentation. “She had to work her way back to being physically fit enough to compete at the Division I level. Her hard work and determination allowed her to compete in her senior year and achieve numerous record-setting statistics. She’s been able to overcome various aches and pains while still excelling in her sport to be a true inspiration.”

McMahon said even Ferris’ teammates were a little surprised.

“I don’t think the majority of our team even realized what was going on until Jeff Smith articulated the intricacies of it all,” McMahon said. “She is so tight-lipped and doesn’t talk about her issues. She was able to perform even when she was feeling those things.”

When UMass plays for its sixth straight Atlantic 10 championship at 1 p.m. Sunday against Richmond, at Richmond, Ferris won’t be a decoy. Whoever is face-guarding her figures to have their hands full. Whether or not the Minutewomen win the A-10 tournament, 13th-ranked UMass (18-1) will certainly earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. But Ferris has never lost a game to a conference foe. Not in the regular season or postseason. Not at Carthage Central High School in New York and not at UMass.

“It’s really important to me to lead a team to never losing a league game,” she said.

Knowing that her playing career has, at most, weeks remaining, is liberating for Ferris, who plans to go into college coaching after graduating this month. She can play as hard as she can during the Atlantic 10 and NCAA tournaments. If she’s worn out at the end, she can rest without worrying what she’s missing.

“I just tell myself, ‘Get through it. You can rest after. Push yourself as much as you can and then you get a break and the break is forever,’” Ferris said. “My body is exhausted, but lacrosse is my favorite thing in the entire world so I’m obviously going to miss playing, but I’m not going to miss the physical toll. I’m excited to get out on my own and see what’s going to happen next.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage

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