Jenna Clark played soccer at a high school that made it practically impossible to stand out. Fortunately, she was impossible to miss.

Jenna Clark played soccer at a high school that made it practically impossible to stand out. Fortunately, she was impossible to miss.

In one week, the Center Place Restoration School graduate will participate in her first practice as a walk-on for the University of Missouri-Kansas City women’s soccer team. Hard to believe, considering that at no point did it look like the odds were in favor of Clark getting to this point.

While Clark always excelled in high school – she was a four-time all-conference selection and holds a bevy of school records – the small private school in Independence isn’t on too many coaches’ radars. Clark graduated in a class of 24 and will be the first athlete from the school to play at the Division I level.

Clark’s chances of playing at the next level also took what seemed like a lethal hit her sophomore season when she suffered a series of complicated knee injuries in her right leg. A previous ankle sprain led to a dislocated and hyperextended knee on top of a bruise she suffered on her femur and fibia. That wiped out the second half of her soccer season and put her out of commission all summer long during the offseason that’s considered most critical as high school players are trying to catch the eye of college coaches.

“I just had to pray about it,” Clark said. “I said, ‘You know, if I’m supposed to play soccer in college – which has always been one of my dreams and my goal in life since I was 3 – then that’s going to happen and there’s going to be some doors opened.’”

In some ways, Clark said, the injury proved to be a blessing because it forced her to become more well-rounded in a year that was her toughest academically.

“I just kind of put (soccer) on the back burner,” said Clark, who graduated as valedictorian of her class. “I was like, ‘You know, I’m going to have a great year and I’m not going to worry about the future too much. I’m just going to have fun doing other things.’”

During the summer Clark was sidelined, she went to a chiropractor who recommended she begin an alternative therapy that involved receiving shots in the cavity above her meniscus. The therapy allowed her to dodge surgery and within six weeks, she was starting to feel healthy again. By the time basketball season rolled around during her junior season, she was at nearly 100 percent.

Athletic success never eluded her and she made a full recovery, but coaches never came calling even as she played on the Kansas City Select Brazil Club team to increase her exposure.

But during the summer in between her junior and senior years, she finally got her chance at a UMKC camp in July. Clark knew she had to make the most of the opportunity.

“It was kind of either this or nothing,” she said. “I definitely put it all out on the line because I figured it was one of my last chances.”

UMKC coach Chris Cissell said there was no way he could overlook Clark, mainly because she followed him around the field like a gnat peppering him with questions about what it would take to earn a roster spot.

“She just did really well and competed really hard and had a great attitude, work rate and passion for the game,” Cissell said. “To be honest with you, she was very persistent and kept talking about the chance to go to school here and play at the Division I level.”

Clark quickly recalls the date – July 20, 2011 – that Cissell called her into his office to let her know she could walk on and join the Kangaroos. Clark did her best to play it cool and calmly accepted the offer. The second she stepped into the hallway, though, she lost it. She danced. She jumped up and down. She let go.

“I just was so excited,” she said. “I couldn’t believe after all that time not being able to talk to anybody or do anything because of my injury, it was still just kind of perfect timing for everything.”

Cissell said that despite Clark’s efforts, he could tell how much the offer affected her. Her reaction meant just as much to him.

“I could tell she was trying to play it cool and was in a little bit of shock,” he said. “But it makes me feel good when you give a player an opportunity and they’re that excited and grateful for it. Sometimes people expect big things or full rides and sometimes they take those opportunities for granted. This was really refreshing.”

While she’ll start as a walk-on, Clark isn’t thinking modestly. She’s set clear goals, which include eventually earning a scholarship, garnering immediate playing time and making UMKC’s traveling team.

“I have very big goals for myself,” said Clark, who plans to major in biology, minor in psychology and hopes to become either a child life specialist or recreational therapist. “... I want to be able to have a good scholarship when I’m a sophomore and I definitely want to play a lot.

“I’m going to work my buns off to be able to have a good spot on the team. I want to play. I want to play really bad.”