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A study in perseverance

St. Francis Xavier X-Women's Breanna Allison overcame a torn ACL in her right knee on her way to becoming an all-star rugby player and national champion
Breanna Allison playing in the USports women's rugby national championship game. (Victoria Vikes Communications)

When the St. Francis Xavier X-Women won another national women's rugby championship in November, no one had more reason to celebrate than Cole Harbour's Breanna Allison.

Allison, a sociology major, is a study in perseverance and gratitude. Playing rugby on two good legs is tough enough, and she had to rebuild one of hers just to get back with her teammates.

She had to overcome a torn ACL in her right knee, injured in the 2015 season. She had to watch from the sidelines as her team lost to Acadia for the AUS championship, ending 17 years atop the conference for the X-Women.

And she wondered if she could ever grab on to a charging opponent without crashing to the turf one more time.

"After the surgery happened, it was almost like having to relearn how to do everything," she said in a recent interview. "How to bend it. How to walk on it. I lost all muscle in my leg. It was literally going from scratch trying to build everything back up.

"The first time I ran, the first time I lifted weights, it was all a mental game. I was very cautious of it. But I knew if I wanted to play again I had to get through the rehab."

She said she was "terrified" when her first rugby match came around. Then something strange happened.

"As soon as I got into a game, I didn't think twice about my knee. I didn't think about tearing it again. I thought I had two perfectly normal knees and I had never been injured. It was kind of crazy. Maybe it was just the adrenaline rush of being back. I can't even explain it."

Allison, a 22-year-old wing, went on to have a strong season in 2016. She was named to the AUS all-star team and the second all-Canadian team.

Winning the championship was the "cherry on top" for the Auburn Drive High School graduate.

"Going through that injury and just pushing myself back and being able to be part of that national championship — that I was in it and I contributed to it — it means a lot to me.

"At the beginning of the year I would never have thought I would win those awards, just because I was coming back from an injury. But at the end of it I knew I was as good as I thought I could be."

Allison's road to X-Women rugby had its own twists and turns. She went on a campus tour and was smitten.

"Just the atmosphere of the town," she said. "Then Grade 12 came along and that's when i started thinking about university. And I wanted to play a sport. I didn't know what my options were. Then (head coach) Mike Cavanagh got a hold of me and everything fell into place."

It wasn't a straight shot to X-Women rugby. She made a recruitment visit to Antigonish to check out the soccer program. She was a high school soccer player as well. "It's kind of funny," she said.

Joining St. F.X. rugby isn't joining the country club. The X-Women play to win the national championship every year. Anything less is a disappointment.

Allison entered the 2015 season, her third with the team, healthy and ready for another St. F.X. title run.

In the first game she played at UPEI in September, she attempted to tackle a Panthers fullback after the player broke loose. Allison grabbed her opponent from an odd angle.

"And just the way I had to tackle her, my knee didn't go with the tackle you could say. I went down and I came off. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't think ACL. I thought once the swelling went down I'd be back on the field and I'd be good to go."

An MRI later revealed the torn ACL. She was booked for surgery in Halifax two months later.

It was tough to watch from the sidelines, wondering if she might have been able to do something to help.

She had to deal with some doubts.

"I tried to push myself so I would be back fully for training camp and I was just scared if one week I didn't work as hard as I did the previous week it would push me back."

Nothing is free in X-Women rugby. Playing time is earned. X-Women practices can be tougher than some of their games.

Just because Allison wanted to get back in the games didn't mean much.

"We didn't know who would be in the starting lineup, because no matter who he (Cavanagh) would put on there, they would make an impact," she said. "It kind of worried me a bit being out a year and coming back from injury. I didn't know who the rookies were coming in. I didn't know if someone would take my spot. Maybe I was one step back because of the injury."

Cavanagh said Allison put in the work to return to action.

"She deserved her chance," he said. "I would say she was probably three or four months ahead of schedule. I didn't think she would have been ready. She's a tough kid that just wouldn't give up.

"She's a quiet leader who leads by example. Every time she played this fall she was getting better because she was just getting her confidence back. She was a huge part of our play at nationals. She really stepped up. The bigger the game the better she played."

Because she only played one game in 2015, she was able to retain her year of athletic eligibility, meaning she has two remaining if she chooses.

The goal this fall will be to defend the title with the nucleus of the roster returning. The X-Women have had a habit of winning in even-numbered years — 2006, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.

"We all want to break that even-year record and say that we've won in an odd year and won two years in a row," Allison said.



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