Garrett Swart and Austin Frank will literally be central to the St. Francis High soccer team's success this season.
From their position side by side in the center midfield, Swart, a senior, and Frank, a junior, are expected to form a dynamic duo capable of driving the Golden Knights back to the top of the Mission League and further into the CIF playoffs.
"The center of our midfield with Austin and Garrett is going to be our strength," St. Francis High Coach Glen Appels says.
St. Francis is loaded with lethal forwards, skill and depth in goal and a sturdy defense, yet the Golden Knights are well aware of the importance Swart and Frank hold to their hopes.
"If we can get both of them playing at the same time, that's going to make all the difference because Garrett's the distributor and Austin's what holds our team together in the middle," senior midfielder Connor Snashall says. "Having the two of them just gives us so many more options with formations we can run."
Competing in the Mission League, which the team last won in 2007, or duplicating the postseason success of 2008, in which the team captured the CIF Southern California Division II Regional title, certainly won't be easy.
But neither was anything Swart or Frank had to go through just to be ready to take field this season.
Following a season cut short by separate but intertwined injury sagas, Swart and Frank have spent the offseason on a journey of rehabilitation and recovery that has challenged their mettle, inspired their teammates and put the two on the threshold of an eagerly awaited return to the pitch.
Frank likely never saw the innocuous tackle coming that snapped his right tibia and fibula in half during a game against Alemany late last season. After being called up from the junior varsity squad, Frank had shown promise coming off the bench and eventually cracked the starting lineup at center midfielder.
In one split second, his season was done.
"I was running, I planted all my weight on my right foot and I just remember a side tackle coming through," Frank says. "I wasn't in a lot of pain. It was more shock. I saw [my leg] and it was just totally dangling off to the side."
The pain hadn't yet set in, but the realization of the injury's ramifications had.
"I saw right away, Christian Swart was standing there and you could see from Christian's face something had happened," Appels said. "A kid from Alemany said, 'Oh my God, he broke his leg,' and when I got out there, [his leg] was sitting off to the side.
"His first reaction to me was, 'This can't be the end of my season, I have to play against Loyola.' That's the kind of kid he is."
The health issue that hampered Swart's junior season before ending it altogether before the onset of the playoffs, wasn't as sudden or gruesome as Frank's broken leg, but frustrating and debilitating all the same.
His chronic back pain was initially misdiagnosed as a muscular problem or scar tissue from a sports hernia operation, but it turned out to be a stress fracture in his back. Inflammation of the fracture caused pain and made running practically impossible.
"You could see he was uncomfortable and wasn't able to run," Appels said. "As a sophomore, he had started for us and done a fantastic job, so we could see something was wrong."
Over time it got worse and worse as Swart tried to play through it before finally shutting it down.
"It was tough watching my team go through playoffs with me sitting on the bench and not able to contribute," Swart says.
After the season, Swart began the arduous process of rehabilitating his back before he could even think about resuming soccer activities. Swart says he got a lot of support from his teammates when he was out.
"I think that's what got me through it," Swart says.
Meanwhile, Frank was going through his own recovery.
"A lot of seniors came in and visited me in the hospital," Frank says. "The team signed a soccer ball with all of their names on it and I thought that was really comforting and it helped me get through the whole experience."
Once the bones healed after being surgically mended and reinforced, Frank began a regiment of physical therapy and gradual rebuilding of his strength.
"It was frustrating, but you've got to deal with the things you've been given," Frank says. "This is just one of the things that I have to overcome to get to the next level.
"[Physical therapy] has helped a lot. Just the trainers have helped me out a lot too and so have my teammates. Just being with them has made me want to work harder."
Both players have accepted the reality of their injuries but haven't let the pain or fear stop them from working their way back.
"It's something that I was born with and it will never heal," Swart says. 'I'm just trying to get the muscles around it strong so I can last the whole season.
"I'm totally ready [for this season]. I'm excited, too. I think we're going to have a good team."
This season will mark the first time that Swart and Frank have played together in the center midfield. Ironically, Frank's emergence in that position last year was a byproduct of Swart's being unable to maintain his usual workload there because of his back problem.
Now Swart, who played a full scrimmage on Monday, and Frank, who saw limited minutes in that scrimmage, but is happy with his progress, will be able to pool their talents.
"He's a great player and I'm excited to play with him this year," Swart says. He knows how to control the midfield and talk and be a leader on the field."
"I feel good," Frank says. "It's just a matter of fitness and feeling comfortable out there and not holding myself back.
"Garrett looks really good and I'm excited to see us together."