ANAHEIM — Coming off the bench amid the pressure cooker of a sudden death overtime to decide a tense scoreless soccer match with a championship berth on the line wasn't so much a challenge for Alyssa Conti as it was a reward.
The Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy forward and co-captain knows all about being challenged, being less than a year-and-a-half removed from battling a paralyzing and potentially fatal illness, one which forced her to contemplate life in a wheelchair before forcing her to work for months to regain the coordination and athleticism that was once second nature.
Every minute since her brush with viral encephalitis and Guillain-Barre syndrome in late-2009 that Conti has been able to spend doing things she once took for granted — including playing soccer — has been a reward for her toughness and refusal to accept anything but a full recovery.
And, being mobbed by her teammates in joyous celebration after kicking home the goal that sent the Tologs to a 1-0 win over Esperanza in the CIF Southern Section Division I semifinals on Tuesday and into the first division championship game in program history, had to be one of the sweetest yet.
"I can't even put it into words to describe it," Conti said. "It's amazing."
Triggered by an acute infection that causes inflammation of the brain, Guillain-Barre syndrome causes ascending paralysis beginning in the feet or hands and radiating toward the torso. Conti experienced paralysis from the hips down just weeks before the start of the Tologs' 2009-10 season.
"I had the choice if I wanted to come back and play [in 2009-2010] or not and, to me, it wasn't really an option, I had to get back on the field, I had to get back out there," Conti said. "That's the mentality I have and that's the kind of person I am."
After weeks in the hospital, Conti's body fought off the infection, which left her needing to teach herself how to walk and perform other simple tasks all over again. She began with crawling and progressed through daily physical therapy every day.
"When she was in the hospital, that was her first thought — I've got to get back on the field," teammate Breeana Koemans said. "She has a lot of spirit."
Conti played through the Tologs' 2009-10 campaign, which saw the team win a Southern California Regional title and was back at full strength for the current campaign, which has seen the team win a Mission League title and now advance to CIF championship.
And the latter is directly due to Conti's goal in the 83rd minute off a pass from Koemans, which seemed somewhat unlikely when Conti, a starter, began overtime on the bench.
"I was praying I would get a chance to go in," said Conti, who has six goals and six assists this year.
Conti got her wish about two minutes into overtime.
"[Co-coach] Kathy [Desmond] said, 'Let's get the senior in,'" Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace said. "She's been there all day, she's scored big goals for us all year."
"Smart coaching decision, I guess," joked Conti, who added, "I went in there thinking, 'I'm going to score, this is my time, I'm going to score.'"
Conti acknowledged feeling like she hadn't played her best game to that point, misfiring on two corner kicks earlier, but vowed to herself to go out on a better note. She did just that, calmly booting in a pass from Koemans from the right side of the penalty box smoothly across the frame and into the left corner.
"I trust her with a shot any time," Koemans said. "For her to come back and get us to the finals as a senior, it makes me feel absolutely amazing.
"She stepped up when we really needed it."
For Conti, floating in the euphoria of Sacred Heart's historic win came not all that long after the most arduous time of her life. Yet, it's likely that challenging time made the aftermath of her 83rd-minute heroics all the more memorable.
"I definitely think she's the rock of the team and she holds us all together," teammate Jillian Jacobs said. "When she was in the hospital, it was one the scariest things ever to have your best friend there.
"Just like today, she wasn't going to go down without as fight. She came to us before overtime and said, 'We're not going to lose this.' She proved it and she took it upon herself to make sure we didn't."