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April 4, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the other side of the world, Courtney Petersen learned, to her distress, that Virginia’s run in last year’s NCAA women’s soccer tournament had ended with a third-round loss to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

On that day in late November, Petersen was on the island nation of Papua New Guinea, 9,000 miles away from her UVA teammates. She had withdrawn from the University for the fall semester to play for the United States in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, and now she couldn’t help wondering if her decision had been the right one.

“It was hard for me to see my team go through that,” Petersen recalled recently, “when I knew I probably could have made an impact with them. I kind of was like, `OK, I might have let my team down with leaving.’ But they were very supportive of me, and they always would text me when I was there and see how I was doing. So I never really felt apart from the team, even though I was.”

She had the full support, too, of the Cavaliers’ staff. Head coach Steve Swanson has been extensively involved with U.S. Soccer, most recently as an assistant on the women’s national team, and his obligations periodically pull him away from Charlottesville.

“When I look at things, I look at how I would want to be treated if I was a player,” Swanson said, “and I think that for most of our players, that’s a dream, that’s their goal, to play at that level. And I think the University has been very generous in that regard. It’s very supportive of our players’ needs and their wants and their desires and their goals on the athletic front.

“Sometimes it’s hard, because when you lose somebody of Courtney’s talent, that’s tough. You’ve got to make up for that. But I think overall Courtney gained from that experience, and hopefully we’re going to get that experience when she comes back to the team and she’s healthy. And I think the players that had to step up in her place gained from the experience. So I look at it as a win-win.”

Petersen, who in 2015 made the ACC’s All-Freshman team, returned to UVA in January. She’d been hindered by a problem with her right ankle at the U20 World Cup, and she re-injured it early this semester during a fitness session at Virginia.

Dr. Joseph Park, an orthopedic surgeon at UVA, examined Petersen and found she had a cracked bone in her ankle. She had an operation March 1 that has kept her out of the Cavaliers’ spring practices, but she hopes to be cleared to play on team’s May trip to France and Belgium.

“Best-case scenario, she’s back training with us at the end of April,” Swanson said, “and then when we start our training for the foreign trip she can work in with us and get minutes overseas.”

Petersen, who’s from Canton, Mich., about 30 miles west of Detroit, suffered the initial injury in September while training with the U20 national team.

She was in pain, but “I didn’t really have a choice,” Petersen said. “I either kept playing or I missed the World Cup. I just fought through it, took about a week off, rehabbed it and then continued to train. We got to the World Cup, and during our pregame training before we played Ghana, I just planted wrong and my ankle went again.”

At the World Cup, where the United States placed fourth, her injury limited Petersen to two appearances in Papua New Guinea, including a start in the Americans’ opener, a 0-0 draw with France.

If her World Cup experience did not turn out to be everything she hoped, Petersen said, “I think playing with the national team has helped me not only as a player but as a person as well.”

To succeed at that level, she said, “you have to hold yourself to a higher expectation and be professional all the time. It made me open my eyes to other things in life. Not everything’s going to be perfect, but you have to fight through it.

“It’s just more of a mental game with [the national team], and it made me realize I have to control what I can control. Obviously with my ankle, I couldn’t control that, but I could control how I was acting on the bench, how I was to my teammates. I was having to support my teammates while they were playing, because I was out.”

Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbor. To see the resilience and spirit of the island’s residents, many of whom live in poverty, was “a humbling experience,” Petersen said.

“Over here we’re sad when we don’t get the new iPhone, but [the island’s residents] are so excited when they get a used pair of sandals or see new people come in. So seeing all that really put things into perspective for me. I’m blessed to have what I have, and I’m grateful for all the things I have here in America.”

Petersen, who also has represented the United States at the U14, U15 and U17 levels, said returning to UVA in January was challenging.

“Being out of school for six months, especially at a university like Virginia, it’s not easy to hop back in it,” she said. “So that’s been hard, and I’ve also been dealing with my ankle, so it’s very mentally tough right now. Because usually I have my soccer to go to when I’m upset about school … And it definitely isn’t easy being away from the team for this long and then having this injury happen, because I was really excited to get back in with the team and try to build my relationships on the field with these players again.”

Those teammates include freshman Zoe Morse, with whom Petersen played in the Michigan Hawks club program.

The Cavaliers’ next spring exhibition is Saturday night against the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League. The teams will meet at 7 o’clock at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md.

Petersen will miss that match, but Swanson expects her to have a significant impact when she’s cleared to play again.

“Even though she’s a rising second-year in eligibility, she’s got a lot of experience under her belt already,” Swanson said. “She’s an older veteran player, especially at the level you expect from a national team player, and her maturity on the field will help. Obviously we missed her athleticism and the depth that we would have gained with having her on the field, and her natural left foot gives us something that we don’t have.”

Petersen can play in the midfield or on defense, “but if she played in the back you’d still want her to get forward, because she’s very good attacking-wise, and she can cross the ball very well,” Swanson said. “And she’s a threat to score. I think she’s got a long-range threat that you can’t discount, either.

“For us, she’s another attacking presence, which you could argue we could have used this past year.”

Petersen hasn’t played in a UVA game since Nov. 27, 2015. On that afternoon, with a trip to the College Cup awaiting the winner, Virginia lost to Rutgers in a penalty kick shootout at Klöckner Stadium.

Petersen hopes to one day represent the United States on the senior national team, whose current players include former UVA greats Morgan Brian, Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Sonnett.

For now, though, “I just want to be here,” Petersen said, “to train with Virginia, play for Virginia again, put my jersey on that says Virginia again, and just experience what it’s like to play under the lights at Klöckner again.”

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