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Triumphant return for Lincoln-Way East’s Thea Gerfen just what the doctor ordered. ‘It felt amazing coming back.’

Vincent D. Johnson/Chicago Tribune/TNS

A hip injury cost Lincoln-Way East’s Thea Gerfen the final month of her junior season in 2023.

That meant she had to watch from the sidelines as the Griffins made it to state for the first time in program history before finishing fourth in Class 3A.

Gerfen thought about what she missed out on as she went through rehab to try to work her way back to the field.

“It kind of fueled me to get back and work harder,” Gerfen said. “For six months, I was grinding and ready to come back.”

The senior defender/midfielder made her return for Tuesday’s season opener and scored a goal as host Lincoln-Way East rolled to a 7-0 win over Homewood-Flossmoor in a Windy City Ram Classic first-round game in Frankfort.

“I was really pumped to be back out here,” Gerfen said. “I was working really hard on my recovery. My goal was to come back for high school season, and I’m glad we got the win to start it.”

Bre Herlihy had two goals and an assist for Lincoln-Way East (1-0), which advanced to take on Stagg (1-0) at 6 p.m. Thursday in a second-round game of the 32-team tournament. Hannah Tokarski scored twice, Cami Butler totaled a goal and two assists and Shae Eggert added a goal.

Mattea Arroyo and Breanna Kowalewicz combined for the shutout in goal.

Cristina Ramirez made six saves for H-F (0-1).

Throughout the Griffins’ memorable run last season to state, Gerfen was a major cheerleader and ended up being like an extra coach on the bench.

“It’s great to see her back and see her score a goal,” Lincoln-Way East coach Mike Murphy said of Gerfen. “She was an instrumental part for us last year, and the nice thing about her is she stayed positive after her injury and she helped out everybody.”

Gerfen enjoyed the ride, even though she couldn’t be a part of it on the field.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “There was a little bit of thinking, ‘Dang, I wish I was out there.’ But I was really happy for my team. They worked really hard to get there.

“I went to practice every day and could see how bad everyone wanted it, so it was really cool to see it happen.”

Gerfen’s teammates are glad to have her back.

“It’s a big help,” Herlihy said. “She really anchors the defense and stops it from even getting back to them. We gave up no shots on goal (Tuesday), so I think she was a big help for that.”

Tokarski, Camden Cosich, Mia Hedrick and Julia Chonarzewski also contributed heavily to the dominant defensive performance.

Gerfen spent much of the game playing defensive midfielder, a switch from her typical spot in back.

“It’s new to me,” she said. “Last year, I played center back, so I kind of like the attacking part of this. I’m really enjoying it.

“I was taking (Murphy’s) tips, and I really want to lock down on knowing how to play the position and make sure I know where to be all the time.”

Murphy appreciates Gerfen’s willingness to ask questions.

“She’s playing a position she hasn’t played before, but she’s such a good player that I want to get her more involved,” Murphy said. “She’s so receptive to it and she always comes off like, ‘Hey, what can I do here?’

“I love that about her. She wants to get better.”

Gerfen scored as part of a five-goal outburst for the Griffins in the second half. She took a pass from Herlihy and ripped a shot into the top part of the net.

“It was definitely unexpected, but I was really excited,” Gerfen said. “I was pumped. I feel like I blacked out on that play, but I was like, ‘I’m here and I’m ready to shoot.’

“It felt amazing coming back and getting that first goal.”