In Pain, Derstine Leads Royals’ Field Hockey Team

By Dustin Dopirak, Daily News-Record

EMU student Alyssa Derstine
Junior field hockey forward Alyssa Derstine

There was a short period when Alyssa Derstine was afraid her legs could explode. The Eastern Mennonite University field hockey star has been assured that’s not going to happen, but it still feels like a possibility many days.

Just before the season, the junior forward was diagnosed with compartment syndrome in both of her lower legs, a condition in which pressure in the muscle builds to dangerous levels. There are two types of compartment syndrome – acute and chronic – and the former could actually cause a muscle to explode if it suffers trauma.

About a week after she was initially diagnosed, and a doctor told her not to run because she might have the acute version, Derstine learned she had the milder condition. That meant she didn’t have to worry about losing her legs, but it still meant she would spend each day of this season fighting through what would feel like the most painful of shin splints.

“The muscle gets so inflamed that it cuts off my nerve pathways, so my legs go numb,” Derstine said with a smile and laugh that contrasted with her words. “So it’s just, like, excruciating pain, and the leg gets so big and puffy.”

But on two legs that she sometimes can’t even feel, Derstine has led the Royals back to the top of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.

The junior forward ranks second in the ODAC in goals (21) and total points (50), trailing only Lynchburg’s Allie Weir (33 goals and 69 points) in both categories. She also leads the Royals in assists with eight, a category in which she’s ranked fourth in the conference.

In large part because of her contributions, EMU (13-4) is making a run at its 12th championship in the 27-year history of ODAC field hockey and its first since 2003. The Royals finished tied for first in the conference during the regular season but took the top seed in the tournament over Lynchburg, thanks to a head-to-head victory. After a 10-0 quarterfinal blowout of No. 8 seed Sweet Briar, they host No. 4 seed Washington & Lee at 6:30 p.m. today in the semifinals. See the 2008 team roster…

“She’s been a huge part of our offense,” senior defender Kristina Landis said. “I’ve been really impressed with her attitude dealing with compartment syndrome. She’s really been tough and she’s really been a great offensive force for us.”

Chronic compartment syndrome is usually caused by overusing the affected body part, and in Derstine’s case, that’s a surprise to no one.

The Telford, Pa., native – whose parents were both athletes at EMU – is a health and physical education major and a workout fiend. She’s been especially intense since she got to EMU and was converted from a sweeper – her position at Christopher Dock High School – to forward.

The biggest part of the transition is that it requires much more skilled stick handling. A sweeper’s job is just to take possession of the ball from the offense and clear it out away from the goal. Forwards have to keep control of the ball and attack with the dribble.

To get better at the skill, she went to EMU’s turf field almost every day by herself doing stick drills – many of which she invented – adding to an already taxing regimen of weight lifting and running.

“She’ll just come to my office, get some balls, get some cones,” EMU coach Brenda Bechler said, “and just entertain herself out here.”

Said Landis: “She’ll stay out for hours and just take hard shots on cage. Her strength is just continuously improving.”

It’s showed in the stats.

Derstine had three goals and four assists as a freshman, then led the team with 15 goals and six assists as a sophomore to earn All-ODAC first-team honors and lead the Royals to a 10-7 mark. That included a 7-0 conference record before they lost to Lynchburg in the conference finals.

Her success pushed Derstine to do even more work this offseason than she did in previous years, but by the summer, her shins were telling her it might have been a bit too much. She’d had pain in her legs for a while, but this time, she and her parents decided it was enough for her to get tested for a stress fracture. That came up negative, but doctors decided to test for compartment syndrome by putting Derstine on a treadmill and measuring her legs’ reaction; the tests, obviously, showed a major pressure build-up.

Doctors have recommended surgery to relieve the pressure, but they said Derstine could wait until after the season if she could play through the pain. At first, that seemed like it might be too much to ask, but the Royals are thrilled that she’s pressed on.

“I think it was the second game of our season, she came out in tears and just kind of fell to the ground,” Bechler said. “So we were just like, ‘Are we going to have to deal with this the whole season,’ and ‘How long will she be able to put up with this before she decides I can’t do this anymore?’ But yeah, she’s been a huge trooper.”