Mercury All-Area: Kyra Lesko comes back from ACL injury, moves back and unlocks Upper Perkiomen’s potential in magical season

Kyra Lesko spent the last two years of her Upper Perkiomen girls soccer career in unwelcome positions.

As a junior in 2021, Lesko was team statistician, relegated to an off-field support role while recovering from an ACL tear that denied her a high school season.

Then, as a senior, the lifelong attacking midfielder found herself literally back in the lineup, initially a reluctant defensive midfielder, asked to convert from creator to protector.

The 2021 Lesko-less edition of the Indians was an accomplished one with trips to the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship game and District 1-3A semifinals. But its toughness wasn’t to the level of a championship-level team on all fronts.

Its most resilient player was on the sidelines, busy being toughened while rebuilding her knee.

“During that time frame, it made me mentally tougher,” said Lesko on her injury recovery. “At the beginning, I was not OK, I was pretty depressed. But I became mentally tougher through it and knew I would be when I got back on the field.”

Ultimately, ‘unwelcome positions’ may best describe what Lesko inflicted on opponents in Upper Perkiomen’s triumphant season this fall.

With her tenacity in a tackle, ability to halt opposing attackers and tempo-setting style of play in her newfound role, Upper Perk reached its sky-high ceiling by winning its first PAC championship since 2008, a District 1-3A title and reaching the PIAA 3A final, both firsts for the program.

The difference-making Lesko delivered for the Tribe and the accolades followed, including Pa. Soccer Coaches All-State team and now The Mercury’s All-Area Girls Soccer Player of the Year.

“Everyone knew this was our season,” Lesko said. “It was just incredible, more than we could have ever asked for. We know that everyone is so proud of what we’ve done, and we should be proud.”

The Upper Perkiomen girls soccer team, led by captains Mary Kate Sitko, center left, and Kyra Lesko, center right, celebrate with the PAC championship plaque after winning the girls soccer final at Owen J. Roberts. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

The PIAA 3A runner-up earned an All-Area haul with Lesko, who scored seven goals with four assists this fall, joined on the first team by repeat selection Sarah Fisher, senior record-setting forward Sara Edwards, senior defender Lauren Powers and junior Megan Cairns, plus second-team choices Erin Edwards and Mary Kate Sitko.

Upper Perkiomen’s Kyra Lesko battles against a Northern York player in a PIAA 3A first round game Tuesday. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Retiring Upper Perk head coach Mike Freed, the All-Area and PSCA 3A Coach of the Year, played a hunch entering the season that Lesko, despite playing further forward previously for the Tribe and her PA Dominion club team, could bring something special as a proactive protector for the backs.

Much like the season, it went even better than planned.

“I had high expectations on what she could do there, but I had no idea she was going to do what she did,” said Freed. “Her tenacity in tackles, her ability to cover so much ground, it was way better than any of us dreamed, kind of the way our whole season went.”

According to Freed, the season sidelined enhanced Lesko’s analytical approach – ‘it was like she was auditioning to be an assistant coach’ he said – a powerful piece to unlock for a student-athlete who was PAC All-Academic and is No. 1 academically in her class.

The mental coupled with the physical commitment left Freed amazed.

“Her fitness level was outstanding. She had the most demanding, physical position on the field,” he said. “It’s safe to say she covered the most ground of any player on our team and she logged the most minutes (1.974) of any field player on our team.”

But the defensive midfield position didn’t immediately click for Lesko.

“In an intrasquad scrimmage, they put me there and I hated it. (My instincts said) I want to go forward, I want to score, I want to dribble at the defense. I don’t want to stay back. I had a bad mentality at first,” she admitted.

“I came off my club season always playing attacking mid and it felt like I was being put in a box and wasn’t allowed to go out of it. I felt like I had to be back, had to be a defender, couldn’t go forward and be creative, but I feel like throughout the season I learned it was the opposite. It made me more dangerous.”

Lesko’s senior-year excellence wasn’t unforeseen after she garnered attention as a sophomore when she was chosen All-Area and PAC first team in the 2020 pandemic season.

The following May while playing lacrosse for Upper Perk, she back-stepped to chase an attacker and her knee collapsed. The result was a torn ACL, a partial tear of the meniscus and bone fractures in the shins.

“That was a big realization moment in my life,” Lesko said. “I shouldn’t have been injured playing lacrosse. If I wasn’t playing in that game, maybe I wouldn’t have been injured. I really needed to focus in on what I want to do.”

That focus is playing soccer, a career she’ll continue at Thomas Jefferson University next fall.

Her commitment to her recovery allowed her to be fully cleared in six and a half months in December 2021. It wasn’t without its hurdles though.

“I was struggling with walking. For some reason I couldn’t get my natural gait back. I felt so awkward,” Lesko said. “But as soon as I started running, no issues. ‘Oh wow, I can do this.’ I’d get on the treadmill and just run for 1-2 miles, as much as my (physical therapy) would let me. It really encouraged me.”

The timeline allowed her a substantial club season with her 2005 Dominion team prior to rejoining Upper Perk.

“Being a senior and knowing this was my last year, I didn’t have last year to fall back on. It was all or nothing,” Lesko said.

It was mostly all for an Upper Perk team that was undefeated in PAC play, went 25-1-1 and scored 105 goals against 20 allowed all season.
There were many important wins in Upper Perk’s quarter-century total, arguably none bigger than a 2-1 win over then-reigning PAC champ Owen J. Roberts on Sept. 12.

“That game really set a lot of standards for our team. I was able to assist on the winning goal and felt like I stopped a lot of potential goals and that showed me I was gaining a lot of skill for the position,” Lesko said. “Once we beat OJR, I feel like we could win PACs this year.”

The Tribe made good on the feeling when it defeated Perkiomen Valley 2-1 in the PAC final on Oct. 20, UP’s first title in 14 years.

“That was at the top of our lists,” Lesko said. “Owning a PAC title is something we haven’t done in a long time. Being the best team in our area was really encouraging for us.”

It belied things to come.

For all the angst of Lesko not engaging in attacking positions, arguably the defining goal of Upper Perk’s year was all about the senior joining the attack.

In the District 1 semifinals, Upper Perk faced its stiffest test prior to the state final against Gwynedd Mercy. Overrun in the first half, Upper Perk grew into the game and were in control by overtime, but without a game-winner. Finally, with GMA pinned back, Lesko made a marauding run forward, received a pass from fellow captain Sitko and forced her close-range shot through the goalkeeper to send Upper Perk to the district final and states for the first time.

“Going forward playing holding mid, I did it scarcely, but good things came from that,” she said.

Upper Perkiomen’s Kyra Lesko gets a hug from Sarah Fisher after scoring the game-winning goal against Gwynedd Mercy in a District 1-3A semifinal Tuesday. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Upper Perk’s district coronation followed two days later, which set up a dominant run to the state final, outscoring its first three PIAA opponents a combined 12-1.

“It motivated me to go harder, work harder with the knowledge that each game after PACs could be my last game,” Lesko said. “‘Do I want this to be my last game?’ Each step I said ‘absolutely not.’ I wanted to go as far as we could, and we did just that.”

The state final against District 7’s Moon would be the last game no matter the outcome. And while the result was more Rocky than Rocky II – the Tigers rallying in the second half for a 2-1 win and second straight PIAA title – it’s worth noting which won Best Picture.

“We wanted to win and we put our whole heart into it. Being there and being in that environment, there are so many players who come through high school programs and never get to experience playing in a state championship game,” Lesko said. “I’m very glad to have been there and play in that game, to receive a medal even if it was second place. I’m proud to have been there no matter what.”

The Upper Perkiomen girls soccer team poses with the PIAA runner-up trophy after losing in the final to Moon Friday at Cumberland Valley. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

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