- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Mikhaila Bowden’s reliability is the source of her greatest athletic success and her most painful personal heartache.

The Boise State women’s soccer player will be honored Friday on Senior Day, when she should tie the school record for career starts and extend her school record for career minutes played (7,514). She has started 81 of the Broncos’ 82 games in her career and played every minute of 72 of them.

“It makes me feel really good about myself - that I can help my team that long for every single game, that they can count on me,” said Bowden, a defensive standout. “I like being counted on.”

That same trait led to guilt when she learned, three months after she left her Southern California home for Boise State, that her younger half-sister committed suicide. Kianna was 15 years old.

The sisters were best friends who shared a bedroom before Bowden left for college.

“It just feels crazy,” Bowden said, “because I could be here for everyone but her.”

Bowden has overcome her anguish with the help of her teammates, her own relentless energy and “goofy” personality, and the enduring feeling that she wants to make her sister proud.

The Broncos have only one other senior - midfielder Shannon Schueren - but the other five members of the 2011 freshman class will join them on Senior Day as “family” members.

“We were all (with Bowden) when it happened - it was the most vivid memory I have of my freshman year,” Schueren said. “. There was a lot of turmoil going on inside. Unless you were next to her every day, you wouldn’t see that. She still smiled. She still laughed. But it was the time when she was away from everyone else and just with our close group that you could really see how much it affected her. Soccer was the best thing that could have happened to her. It was her outlet where she could put all of her frustration and anxiety aside and do what she’s best at.

“That really saved her in the end - just being able to have a daily dose of forgetting and playing what she loves.”

Bowden was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week on Monday. She’s leading a Broncos surge - three straight shutout wins, including an upset of conference favorite San Diego State.

The Broncos (8-8-3 overall, 5-5-0 MW) can clinch a Mountain West tournament berth by beating Utah State at 3 p.m. Friday. They also could advance with a tie or a loss, depending on what Air Force and San Jose State do.

None of the Broncos’ past eight opponents have scored more than one goal, a testament to Bowden’s ownership of the back third of the field.

“She’s just consistent,” said junior Kelsey Nicassio, who played club soccer with Bowden before college. “You can always count on her to be there. When we’re dominating and she’s not really doing anything, you can count on her to make that one great play.”

NO. 4 FOREVER

Bowden was a goal-setter from a young age. Among her aspirations as a kid: play pro soccer, make the U.S. national team, work for the CIA (still her dream career) and own two dogs.

In high school, she set her sights on an unusual target - jersey retirement. She’d heard about a soccer player at a nearby school who received that honor.

“That was always my goal - I’ve got to work harder so they’ll remember me,” Bowden said.

She was a four-year starter at Ocean View High in Huntington Beach, Calif. She was a two-time conference MVP.

And at the end of her career, her jersey was retired. The school hung it in the girls locker room.

“I check on it every time I go back home,” Bowden said. “. I don’t think I was the greatest (player in school history), but I definitely think I pushed the jersey retirement the hardest.”

She got into soccer because of her mom. Monika Bowden played on Olympic development and regional teams but chose not to play at the major college level.

Monika coached Bowden early in her career and worked on skills with her at the park.

“She tells me all the time that she had the same passion and drive as me, but I think that I have a little more because I’ve kept it going for so long,” Bowden said. “I think, in part, that’s because of her. She’s been pushing me hard and she knows I can handle it. Because she didn’t have her, she stopped playing.”

Bowden’s first decision in recruiting was that she wanted to play outside California. She loves home - “It’s the greatest state ever,” she said - but wanted a new experience. She settled on Boise because of the four-season weather, the players and the coaching staff, then led by Steve Lucas.

She won over everyone with her unique personality.

“She was just this ball of energy,” Schueren said. “This little goofball who would just ramble on and on and on and tell the craziest stories. . She has this energy that oozes out of her. You can’t help but smile when you’re around her.”

DEALING WITH LOSS

Bowden was alone on Nov. 15, 2011, watching TV in her dorm room, when her dad called.

Kianna was dead.

“Everything happened so fast,” she said. “A phone call changed everything.”

Bowden and Kianna have different mothers. For part of their childhood, Kianna stayed with the Bowdens only on weekends.

When Kianna started high school, she moved in full time.

“We’d just have sleepovers all the time,” said Bowden, who also has an older half-sister and a younger brother. “We would read together, hang out, gang up against my brother if we wanted the TV. We were really close. She always looked up to me in whatever I did. I think when I left it was hard for her.”

Bowden returned home the next morning and stayed for a couple weeks. She worked with her teachers to make up the time she missed in school but struggled to focus when she returned to class.

“Soccer and sleeping were the only things keeping me together,” she said.

She didn’t want to talk about what happened. Others recommended counseling, but she wasn’t ready.

Last year, two of her psychology classes (she majors in criminal justice with a minor in psychology) offered extra credit for speaking to student counselors. Bowden connected with a counselor and visited several times, which has helped her talk about her sister.

Still, three years later, the interview for this story left her in tears.

“She’s dealing every day with managing all that emotion that’s still inside,” Boise State coach Jim Thomas said.

LAST LINE OF DEFENSE

Bowden’s on-field role is to organize the defensive effort and make sure nobody gets a clean look at the goal. The Broncos employ four defenders in a semi-circle, with Bowden as the centerpiece.

Her off-field role is to manage the team’s psyche.

“The off-the-field stuff is where she becomes way more of an interesting person to coach,” said Thomas, who took over the Broncos’ program in 2013. “She’s probably the goofiest kid I’ve ever met in my life. It’s odd, to say the least, that you would have a kid who’s somewhat like a Disney character off the field be the biggest warrior on it. . That’s why the players receive her so well. It’s very stressful being a collegiate athlete. You need someone to break it down and have some fun and take the tension out of the room. She does it for me as well.

“When you talk about what a player brings to the program, often you separate the two - a great team player and a great producer. To have it all encapsulated in the same person is why she’s one of the best players this program has ever seen.”

Thomas runs a system that often leaves Bowden and sophomore Hailey DeVries exposed and allows the outside defenders to join the attack. Bowden plays a role in the offense, too, because of her passing ability.

Early in her career, Thomas said, Bowden kicked the ball in a funky way that limited her.

“Now she strikes a ball that is very rare in the female game - very flat and low and accurate over 40 to 60 yards,” Thomas said. “. We’ve tried to put in things where we can show off this range.”

If opponents mount a counter-attack, they must deal with Bowden to get to the goal.

Bowden, Schueren said, is like a football safety - using a combination of skill and physicality to ward off attackers.

She only remembers one player truly beating Bowden with the ball over the past four seasons. Even in practice, Schueren said, Bowden wipes out anyone with thoughts of scoring.

“You have no idea what hit you,” she said.

A STANDING OVATION

Bowden’s style - and the Broncos’ reliance upon her - comes with a price.

The soccer players rate themselves on a wellness scale every day. Bowden’s, like most players’ reports, shows a tired, sore college athlete.

But for mood, she almost always puts a 5 on a 1-to-5 scale, Thomas said.

“Hold on,” he said earlier this month, before the Broncos’ hot streak. “You’re exhausted. You’re sore. The season is long. We’re not doing that great. And you’re a 5? Everybody else is a 2 or a 1. She’ll goof around and she’ll put a 4.5 just to say, ‘I’m not always a 5.’ “

Bowden has missed one game in her college career. It was a coach’s decision after a “miscommunication” with Lucas, she said.

She exits games so rarely that when Thomas removed her with a big lead earlier this season against Idaho State, the Broncos and their fans gave her a standing ovation.

She missed time in the spring with a head injury and left a game this season because of concern she might have a concussion. She has played through pulled hamstring and groin muscles, the latter a recurring problem.

“I have seen her bawling on the field because she’s in so much pain but still chase people down and slide,” Nicassio said. “It’s almost like, ‘You need to get off the field. You need to stop.’ She can’t. It’s just her nature.”

Said Thomas: “She’s so seldom injured. She’s hurt a lot. There is no way that kid is not going to play, mainly because she wants to help her sisters out and be there for them.”

One of Bowden’s jobs - and one she excels at - is to attack the ball in the air. The concussion scare this year was a result of a head-butt.

“The type of headers I have to go in for as a defender, they’re pretty risky,” she said. “You just have to push yourself through those types of things. You just have to have the mindset you know you might get hurt but this is for the team.”

LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE

That selflessness is one of the lessons Bowden will carry with her from her time at Boise State.

She learned from what she was able to do for her team but also what her teammates were able to do for her.

“I learned that the people around you really make a difference,” she said. “And that I can create my own environment. If my team is down, I can help change that. I may be one person in this huge school or this giant state or this big world, but I feel like the way I bring my heart and my passion into the game, it can affect a lot.”

Undoubtedly, Kianna will be on her mind Friday when she plays her final college home game - perhaps her final college game, depending on the result.

The loss that might have ended Bowden’s Broncos career if not for the stubbornness within her has become a motivator.

“I knew after everything happened that I needed to still stay on track with my goals,” Bowden said. “I knew what would make me happiest was accomplishing my goals and knowing that my little sister could be watching over me - even though she’s not with me, she could still be proud.”

IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE IN EMOTIONAL CRISIS

Call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Warning signs to watch for:

. Talking about wanting to die.

. Looking for a way to kill oneself.

. Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

. Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

. Talking about being a burden to others.

. Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.

. Acting anxious, agitated or reckless.

. Sleeping too little or too much.

. Withdrawing or isolating themselves.

. Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

. Extreme mood swings.

Other things you can do to help:

. Do not leave the person alone.

. Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.

. Listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.

. Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate. Don’t lecture on the value of life.

. Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.

. Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.

. Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.

. Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.

. Get help by calling the hotline or visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Source: Suicide Prevention Lifeline

___

Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com

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