It was just after midnight on a dark and windy road near Huasna.
Arroyo Grande High School junior Allie Palangi sat shotgun in a silver BMW. Her friend was in the back seat. The driver started to accelerate as they headed from a friend’s house back to Arroyo Grande. He was going too fast, Palangi said.
The trees lining the two-lane road blurred as he reached 60 mph.
In a flash, the driver lost control of the car navigating a curve. The BMW slid off the road, clipped a barbed-wire fence and slammed into an oak tree. The passenger side took the brunt of the crash. Palangi blacked out.
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When she came to, the dashboard was inches from her face. Glass was everywhere. The car was in a ditch.
Palangi saw smoke rising from the mangled engine, and knew she had to get out. Luckily, she was able to open the door and escape the wreckage, but as she tried to take a step, she screamed and collapsed.
Her right leg — the same leg that she used to score goal after goal as a top youth soccer player and earn a scholarship offer from the University of Colorado — was shattered, broken in two places.
All the 16-year-old could do was think about soccer as her friend frantically tried to stop a passing car in an area without cell phone service.
Looking down at her broken leg, she didn’t know what would happen next.
Palangi was 12 years old when she started realizing that her dream of college soccer was a real possibility. It was then that she received an invite to a prestigious national soccer camp.
“After that, I have been playing at an elite level and working hard to be the best I can,” Palangi said.
Palangi eventually joined the Eagles Soccer Club, one of the top club teams on the Central Coast. That’s where she met now San Luis Obispo High School senior Emily LeMiere. The two became fast friends on long car rides to and from practice and Southern California soccer tournaments.
“We have the same sense of humor,” LeMiere said with a laugh while sitting next to Palangi in the living room of her San Luis Obispo home two weeks ago.
“Also, we were both pretty competitive, and we would get after it at practice,” Palangi said.
That competitiveness spilled over to the high school field where they were on rival teams. LeMiere was a defender for SLO High and Palangi one of the top strikers in the area for Arroyo Grande. They loved to talk trash during games.
Meanwhile, Palangi’s play started to catch the eye of college scouts early in her high school career. She was named to the PAC 8 second-team as a freshman and continued to play well in club tournaments. That’s when two PAC-12 schools — Oregon and Colorado — came calling her sophomore year.
“I was originally going to commit to Oregon, but last minute I got a call from Colorado to go out there,” Palangi said. “I loved the school and loved the coaches, and I decided to go there.”
Palangi verbally committed to the school (she can’t officially sign her National Letter of Intent until her senior year). She loved it so much, she even tried to recruit LeMiere, who won't play college soccer, to come with her.
“Allie and I went to a football game at the Rose Bowl before I had ever even thought of Colorado. When we were there, she said, ‘You have to go,' ” LeMiere said. “When I went there for a visit, I thought, 'This is the coolest school.'”
LeMiere applied and was accepted. The friends love to talk about what they will do when they are both at campus in Boulder. But on this day, they sit side-by-side on the couch and talk about the frightening moments following the Jan. 28 crash and how LeMiere was in the right place at the right time.
LeMiere was also a passenger in a car driving on Huasna Road that night. They navigated the same turn where the silver BMW lost control and crashed. As they slowly took the turn a few minutes later, LeMiere and the other passengers in the car could see something in the middle of the road.
“Is that a deer?” one passenger asked.
It wasn’t. It was Rilee Day, an Arroyo Grande High School senior and standout volleyball player who had been sitting in the back seat of the wrecked BMW. Despite broken ribs and collar bone, Day was frantically waving her hands to get LeMiere’s car to stop.
“We were in an accident,” a distraught Day said as she came up to the passenger window.
“Are you OK?” LeMiere asked.
“Not really. Allie is still in the car,” Day replied.
Then they heard Palangi scream. LeMiere and others rushed to the car, which couldn’t be seen from the road, to help her.
"Immediately, I knew we needed to get her to a hospital," LeMiere said.
Palangi kept talking about soccer as LeMiere and a friend carried her up from the ditch and to the waiting car.
"I just told her it was going to be fine," LeMiere said.
They eventually made it into the car and drove to an area with cell phone service to call 911. Later, in the hospital, Palangi received the bad news: She had a broken back and fractures to the tibia and fibula of her right leg.
The driver, a 16-year-old who The Tribune has chose not to identify, suffered a minor injury in the crash. According to the California Highway Patrol Crash report, the driver was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He was cited for driving on a provisional driver's license after the allowed hours and with passengers under the age of 20. He was also cited for making an "unsafe turning movement," according to the CHP report obtained by The Tribune.
Drive to get back
The injury required major surgery and kept Palangi confined to a wheelchair for the following two weeks.
“Mentally, knowing that this would negatively impact my soccer career was really difficult,” Palangi said. “That was just awful for me. Physically, just getting around was hard, too. The pain trying to walk to my classes was really hard.”
The timetable for her return isn’t set in stone, but it’s likely that her high school soccer career is over. Palangi said it will probably take almost a year before she can start running again.
“When I am down, I just try to think to myself that it is going to end and I am going to play again. This is a low, but there is going to be another high,” Palangi said.
She said she has been in contact with Colorado women’s soccer coach Danny Sanchez and he knows of her situation.
“They were saying, 'We are on your side,' ” Palangi said. “They told me just stay in recovery and keep us updated and try your best to get as well as you can and get back on the field as soon as you can.”
As for the scholarship offer: “They are saying they are going to honor it, but I don’t know what is going to happen,” she said.
Sanchez, who said he wasn't allowed to talk specifically about Palangi per NCAA rules, spoke to The Tribune in general about injuries to high school recruits.
"Most coaches know the deal," Sanchez said. "Players get hurt, and you just hope that they get better by the time they get to school."
Palangi started attending physical therapy three times a week soon after the crash, the first step in the long road to recovery. And she’s already starting to see progress. She’s able to take her boot off at home and put weight on her leg. Still, she tries to avoid watching soccer.
It's still too painful.
With the support of her family and friends, Palangi said she will keep working every day to make it onto Prentup Field in Boulder and complete her dream.
“It’s really hard not being out there, but eventually I will be,” Palangi said. “My love for soccer, that’s was going to make sure I don’t stop.”