Maria Van Hove couldn’t believe the timing. The 2015 girls’ soccer season was just days from beginning and the Benilde-St. Margaret’s midfielder was prone on the soccer pitch. Her left knee was in shambles with a torn ACL and meniscus damage suffered during a scrimmage. One moment she was anticipating a big junior year, the next it was over.

“It was really tough,” Van Hove said. “The team was counting on me to play a big role, and it was all wiped out.”

The Benilde-St. Margaret’s program is synonymous with soccer success, so the Red Knights had enough talent in reserve to go on to win their third Class 1A state championship in six seasons. Van Hove remained a part of the team, but sitting and watching just wasn’t the same as actually contributing.

“I was so motivated to come back,” she said. “Getting ready for this high school season was my main goal.”

Junior Claire Van der Heide barely got the chance to contribute to the Red Knights’ state title last year. The midfielder underwent surgery for a torn hip labrum during her freshman year and didn’t return to high school soccer until the 2015 season was nearly over.

“I got in a little bit, but I wasn’t nearly 100 percent,” Van der Heide recalled.

Graduation sapped much of the team’s top-end talent but not the expectations. For the Red Knights, contending for a state championship is always a realistic goal. Those expectations drove Van Hove and Van der Heide during their recoveries and now both are playing key roles for the team, ranked No. 1 in Class 1A.

“It’s nice to have them back,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Scott Helling-Christy said. “We don’t have as much coming back this year. We’re fortunate that we always have some good young players coming up, but you need some solid seniors and experienced players to set the standard.”

The Red Knights are full of players who devote a great deal of time to playing club soccer. But at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, the high school season is special.

Senior captain Maren Noble missed much of her sophomore season because of a torn ACL. When her rehab was dragging and inevitable questions arose about whether she could come back, being a Red Knight became her primary motivation.

“I love being a Benilde soccer player,” Noble said. “You tell people you play for Benilde and they say, ‘Oh, you guys are so good.’ Not being able to play motivated me. It made me want it more.”

Noble said Van Hove and Van der Heide are important for more than just their talent. Part of playing for Benilde-St. Margaret’s is passing along team traditions and values to new underclassmen. Winning championships is a great attention-getter.

“It’s cool because the younger players listen to the older players,” Noble said. “We can show them that we can be the best in the state. That’s what everyone’s working for.”

Of course, defending a championship is never easy. Among the players the Red Knights lost to graduation was 2015 Class 1A Ms. Soccer winner Aleksa Tataryn. They’ve been forced to retool their entire back line, making offense a bigger priority as the defense has been giving up goals more regularly. They fell to 4-2 on season after a 1-0 loss to Chanhassen on Tuesday.

“We’re still getting used to playing with each other,” Helling-Christy said. “Last year, we hardly gave up any goals. This year, we’re giving up about a goal a game.”

He admitted that bringing in younger players, along with getting previously injured players up to game speed, has been a challenge. But he is confident this group will round into championship-level shape.

“This team has been very unselfish and works well with each other,” he said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we won’t have too many injuries. If we stay healthy, I’m sure we’ll keep developing as a team and have some success.”

As for Van Hove and Van der Heide, just getting back onto the field has been gratifying.

“There were periods of time when I got down on myself,” Van der Heide said. “But now I remember why I started playing soccer in the first place. You can get lost in the game. Playing soccer makes me so happy, I can’t imagine my life without it.”