- - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Nearly seven months have passed since Tori Huster escaped the fire that destroyed the home of the Eckerstroms, a host family for Washington Spirit players, on an otherwise-unassuming March night in Montgomery County.

Huster, then-teammate Tiffany Weimer and the Eckerstroms were unharmed. But most of their belongings — including their cars — were lost.

“From a mental standpoint, I don’t know if I’ve fully been able to process everything that has happened,” Huster said. “I certainly have the support system around me to help me get through that or to help me forget. But there are still times when I think about, ‘Am I going to be ready? Or what am I going to do if this happens again?’

“It’s something that I’ve tried to put behind me, but it comes back when you least expect it.”

Amid hardship off the field, Huster has delivered a career year for the Spirit on the field. A steady defensive midfielder, the 27-year-old led the club in minutes played while starting 19 of 20 regular season matches.

After an overtime win over the Chicago Red Stars in the semifinals Friday, Huster and the Spirit will face the Western New York Flash in the NWSL Championship on Sunday in Houston.

While daily life offers reminders of the blaze, which occurred four days before the start of NWSL preseason, playing for the Spirit has provided Huster with a welcome sanctuary.

“There’s never good timing to have a house fire,” Huster said. “But to have that timing right before preseason, where I could honestly just throw all of my energy and whatnot into preseason and kind of leave the fire in the dust, that was very helpful for me.”

While Weimer now plays for a club in Sweden after being released at the end of preseason, Huster has been welcomed into the Darnestown home being rented by Pam and Kurt Eckerstrom. The family is currently orchestrating plans to rebuild its house in Boyds, a stone’s throw from the Spirit’s Maryland SoccerPlex home.

The Eckerstroms’ daughter Britt, who also escaped the fire, plays in the NWSL as well — as a rookie goalkeeper for the Western New York team Washington will face Sunday. In an outpouring of generosity driven by local fans and the women’s soccer community, a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $50,000 last spring to help Huster, Weimer and the Eckerstroms rebuild their lives.

“It was a galvanizing moment,” Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said. “All teams and players go through hardships and setbacks and real difficulties. You move through those as a team, and it makes you better as a team and it makes you better as an individual.”

On the field, Huster has returned to the form that earned her U.S. national team call-ups in early 2015. Limited to 13 starts last season while playing through a left ankle injury, Huster underwent surgery in November and promptly stepped back into her role as a thorn in the side of opposing midfielders.

Although captain Ali Krieger and reigning NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn are the biggest names on the Spirit roster, it was the midfield triumvirate of Christine Nairn, Joanna Lohman and Huster that kept Washington ticking this season while a host of players missed matches because of national team obligations.

“She’s one of those players that you can’t really fully appreciate until she’s not in there,” Nairn said. “She doesn’t really say too much — just comes in and does her job to the best of her ability and demands the best of herself and everyone around her.”

While Huster hopes to break back into the national team picture, she has pushed those ambitions aside this season. As one of just three players remaining from the Spirit’s inaugural 2013 campaign, Huster has been focused on winning a championship for an organization that has been a comforting constant for her, through good times and bad.

“The support that I received from friends, family, all of the Spirit family, I will never be able to repay that,” Huster said. “I’ll certainly try if anyone ever needs help, but it’s unconditional thanks for all of the support that I received.”

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