After coming off a great sophomore season in 2015, Melanie Byler was a returning starter ready to continue her role making plays for the Waynesburg University women’s soccer team.
The 2016 season started and Byler was off to a hot start. The team started 3-4-1, but the Yellow Jackets were looking to have a promising season.
In the ninth game of the year, in a game against Mount Union, Byler scored her second goal of the season. However, it would be the last goal Byler would score all season.
Before the game would finish Byler suffered a torn ACL, MCL and PCL, along with a lot of other smaller ligaments in her right knee – the athletic training major stated she basically “shredded” her knee.
She knew the instant it happened that it was a season ending injury.
Women’s head soccer coach Laura Heethuis said it was unsettling.
“Man, it’s tough to put into words,” Heethuis said looking back a year later on Byler’s injury. “My heart just sank for her because she had been having such a good season and was such a good threat for us up top.”
The Yellow Jackets would lose to Mount Union 3-2 in the game, but the loss of one of the team’s leaders was the hardest news to swallow.
“The type of leadership she brought to the field on gameday was something that we relied on,” Heethuis said.
Knowing the injury would be difficult to overcome, Byler wasn’t sure what her plans were moving forward.
“At first, I was extremely frustrated,” Byler said. “And the first couple of days afterwards I was extremely hesitant to whether I even wanted to have surgery and come back to play.”
However, through the positive encouragement from her teammates and coaches especially, and the intentionality that she carries with her every day, she decided to have the surgery in November 2016 and prepare for a return during her senior year. She had her mind set on it.
“The more I sat out on the sideline I realized that I did want to come back and I didn’t want to end my soccer career with this tragic injury,” Byler said. “But I wanted to have a cool story of coming back and seeing how God kind of redeems every part of our lives, including our bodies.”
Growing up in a Christian home, Byler had always been surrounded by faith, but it wasn’t until she started to believe that it made a difference to her.
“Instead of being spoon-fed from my parents, I needed to actually start chewing on it and figure out what does this mean to me, ‘Who is Jesus?’ ‘What does He mean to me?’” Byler said.
Byler said during her sophomore year she started to believe more in God and that she has been growing in her faith since then.
“Since I was raised in it I knew a lot of the answers, but a lot of the head knowledge had to become heart knowledge – and that’s a journey that I’m still on,” Byler said.
The strong aspect of faith in Byler’s life is something that Heethuis has noticed.
“Faith is huge for Mel,” she said. “She relies solely on Christ. And I think when you do that, when you have that rock-solid foundation, any trouble or tribulation that comes your way, you’re almost ready to take it on because you know where you are getting your strength from…She wants the will to win, but she wants the will to witness even more. And I think that speaks volumes as who she is as a person but that she is always going to put her faith before everything else.”
While sitting out during her injury, Byler took on a role as a student-coach. The transition wasn’t easy – she knew it wouldn’t be – but since Heethuis adapted to a similar role during her days in college, the experienced coach was able to relay quality insight into Byler’s situation.
“My sophomore year of college I got injured, I broke my leg, part-way through the season as well, and that was a challenge that my coach had for me as well, was ‘How do you continue to lead from the side?’” Heethuis said. “…So you try to learn and you try to become a little bit of a player-coach in that situation and I think that was one thing I challenged Mel to do. She had an opportunity to kind of sit back and watch the game from a different view and watch the angles and the movement of forwards and what the middies need to do and she was really starting to understand the game better than when she came in.”
Although Byler embraced the role of contributing to the team form the sideline – because she had no choice – she felt as though she couldn’t give it all she had.
“I could support my teammates on the sideline but I could only do so much from the sideline,” she said. “I wanted to be back in the battle with them instead of just cheering on the sideline.”
Heethuis knows just how Byler is – having spent several years coaching her and getting to know her, she knew the leader would do what was necessary to make the comeback season happen. She said Byler is very intentional in everything that she does.
“And then also she showed her leadership as well by the amount of time and effort and energy she spent and the dedication and commitment to rehabbing,” Heethuis said. “And spending all that time committed to this team and committed to getting better and coming back and being even fitter than she was before.”
Due to the fact she was unable to do a ton of contact drills during the summer heading into this season, Byler entered game one as a reserve player coming in off the bench. But because of her work ethic, determination and intentionality, she has worked her way back into her starting spot from last year.
“She’s earned her way back into the starting 11 right now,” Heethuis said. “…But having her back on the field, in and out of every practice, every training session, and every single game she brings a voice and a work ethic that I think people can thrive off of. If I want my freshmen looking at this team to find somebody to strive to be like, she’d definitely be one of them. She sets a great example for who we are as a university and what we want the soccer team to be about.”
So far, through eight games of the 2017 season, Byler is tied for first in goals on the team with three and is the points leader, with seven – one more than she had last season this many games into the season. How has she been able to not only return to the field but excel?
“Just praise be to God. I am fully aware that the only reason I’m back is because God is good and he has brought healing to my knee,” said Byler. “Even like up to a week before the season I was having pain in my knee and like I trained a lot and I did a lot of physical therapy over the summer. But it’s by the grace of Jesus Christ alone that I’m able to be playing. And every time I step out onto the field I just say in my head, I’m praying and saying, ‘Help me Jesus do this well and do it for your own glory.’”
While Byler not only includes her faith in her daily life, she also works to share her faith with others. Young Life is a mentor-type event where college students visit and spend time with local high school students simply getting to know their stories and being good listeners.
On any given Friday evening before a game on Saturday, Byler can be caught at West Greene High School sharing her time with others. A Bonner Scholar who is also a member of the Athletic Training Club, Byler has been succeeding on and off the field as a three-time member of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Fall Academic Honor Roll.
Sharing her time on others, whether for her athletic training major or for a fun evening of fellowship, and carrying out her life as a Christian with intentionality, Byler has received high praise from her coach.
“Between being an athletic training student and trying to get in all of those clinical hours and go to team practices that are not her own and then get to practices with us and then be a part of youth group stuff, like she has got so much time that she is devoting to other people,” said Heethuis. “And she truly is a servant leader and somebody that I think Waynesburg in general can be very, very proud of.”