Jimena Espinoza is back — for the third time.

The Stephenville High School junior soccer player went into Friday’s game against China Spring, back from her third serious knee injury.

With coach Casey Weil’s Honeybees firmly in control with an early lead, Espinoza was able to get in some significant playing time with no pressure.

The center-midfielder completed her emotional return with no problems, fitted with a brace on her surgically-repaired right knee.

“It’s like I never left,” Espinoza said after the Honeybees’s 8-0 non-district victory. “For sure, it was kind of like a relief.”

Espinoza has been playing competitive soccer with recreational and club teams since about age 8. Her first knee injury was when she was only 12.

She said it takes her just a little longer to come back from each surgery than the one before. Her doctor had given her the OK to resume playing previously, but Friday’s game was her first action since early in the 2018 season.

Each of the three knee surgeries Espinoza had were to repair the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Weil said that is the most common injury among female soccer players.

“I feel kind of like it’s 90 percent. I have to get back in the rhythm of the game,” Espinoza said of how she felt on the field. “I still have chemistry with the team.”

Her second knee injury came two years ago as a freshman during club play. That caused her to miss the Honeybees’ run to the historic 2017 state championship season — the first girls soccer state title in school history.

Weil said he put her in Friday’s game at a time when everyone would notice that she was back.

“We got up by four or five points and it was not a game that was very physical,” Weil said of the moment he walked up to her on the bench and asked if she was ready to go in. “She jumped up and had a big grin on her face.

“For me to be able to put her in the game and see her smile, that was a very good feeling.”

Espinoza said of the team and the school, “This is such a good support system. They supported me through all of this.”

Weil said that if Espinoza had never been injured, she would be a starter on the team — which is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 4A.

“She’s a phenomenal player. It’s just unfortunate that happened,” Weil said of her injury woes. “It’s heartbreaking, knowing she had that long road ahead of her before she had any chance to get on the field. She has a great attitude. She handled it great.”

Previously, Weil feared that Espinoza might be thinking about giving up on her latest comeback.

“At the end of last year, I believe that was her plan,” Weil said. “But after we lost to Midlothian Heritage (in the 2018 playoffs), she said, ‘Coach, I’m playing next year.' She’s come back strong. We need her, and she knows that.”