Lacrosse manager with heart ailment stuns in on-field debut

Teammates cheer as Katherine Zisis is introduced as Teammates cheer as Katherine Zisis is introduced as a player at the start of the Roslyn High School girls lacrosse game against Ther Wheatley School. (May 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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The first shot snaked around the net. A miss. But moments later, Katherine Zisis pounced again. This time, the lacrosse ball struck goal.

It was a moment that Zisis' parents, watching from the bleachers at Roslyn High School, never thought they would get to see.

Earlier, as she prepared for her debut as a player at the school lacrosse game Saturday afternoon, they recalled her health struggles. At birth, Zisis, 19, was diagnosed with pulmonary stenosis, a heart condition; and surgeries took their toll. She was labeled a "failure to thrive" infant, and was developmentally delayed and learning disabled.

"We didn't know whether she'd be alive or not," said her father, Vasili Zisis, of Roslyn.

She toiled through years of physical and occupational therapy. She had palpitations, her mother, Andria Zisis, said, so contact sports were out.

But in the ninth grade, Zisis became manager of the girl's lacrosse team, becoming a four-year fixture at practices and games. She cheered -- and sometimes taunted -- her teammates, but she never played in games. "Come on grandma, run faster," she would yell during practice.

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"She really helps us get pumped," said her teammate, Morgan Shaw, a sophomore.

And to her coach, Michelle Crennan, "She's just like any other member of the team."

Closing in on Zisis' graduation, her teammates wanted her on the field in a game situation.

"We've all been waiting for this all season," said teammate Taylor Freeman, a freshman.

Zisis is to attend Abilities Inc., a job-training program for people with disabilities, at the Albertson-based The Viscardi Center later this year. So the girls set time aside during practices, working one on one with her, just as she had with them.

Her parents were apprehensive. "Doctors said, 'No, you cannot take a chance getting hit by other players,' " her father said.

Before the game, as her teammates cheered her nickname "Kit Kat," she was "feeling a little bit nervous."

But she laid out her strategy: "to score some goals." And, she added, the toughest skill to learn was defense.

Then she took the field. Her score helped the team to a 13-8 win over Wheatley. After two minutes, she was back on the sidelines, having had what she described as the thrill of her life. "I just tried to scoop up the ball," she said after the game. "It felt good."

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