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CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Senior year. One final hurrah.
At least that was what University of Miami soccer defender Lexi Castellano-Mugica envisioned heading into the summer of 2019.
In the last spring practice, over a season ago, the Boca Raton, Fla., native was prepping herself for her fourth campaign as a Hurricane student-athlete, alongside her former classmates, Dejah Cason, Bayleigh Chaviers, Kristina Fisher, Lauren Markwith and Hannah Marwede.
However, as the final minutes dwindled during a transition drill, Castellano-Mugica remembers receiving a ball before the world around her came to an abrupt halt.
Losing stability in her right leg, she heard a pop and instantly diagnosed her injury.
“Immediately, I knew I had torn my ACL, but I didn’t know what else I had done,” Castellano-Mugica said. “I knew it was serious. It didn’t matter who came over, I already knew what had happened. I had gone through it before, and even though it was possible it could have been different, it was just the feeling that I had. So, in that moment, I had no words. My emotions were everywhere and I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
“But I stepped back, got my mind right and got ready for the surgery,” Castellano-Mugica added. “After taking those couple of days to let the injury sink in, I moved on, reset myself and just wanted to attack my recovery. Get back at it, hopefully play another season and keep playing soccer.”
She was soon informed she had not only torn her ACL, but also her meniscus. In addition, her ACL, patellar tendon and meniscus were each repaired during surgery, while also undergoing a procedure on her iliotibial (IT) band to create a new ligament and prevent her knee from twisting as much.
With such a grueling procedure, she knew the path to recovery was going to be a long and highly tested one.
“At first, it didn’t seem too bad because the girls had gone home for the summer, so I was just on campus doing rehab. And it hadn’t hit me yet because it was just me and [UM physical therapist] Julia [Rapicavoli],” Castellano-Mugica said. “…But when the girls came back, I realized it was my senior year and this was my class and I thought, ‘Man, I really wish I could be the person on the field helping.’ That definitely took a toll on me mentally because you are there, you see them warming up, you see them getting ready to go and you can’t.
“It was also [supposed to be] my last year, so I had to think about, ‘Do I want to make this my last year or stay another and make the next year my last year?’” Castellano-Mugica continued. “Just a lot of emotions were going through my head during the season and decisions that needed to be made on my behalf. ‘How do I feel? Do I feel like my knee will be able to fully recover? Do I feel comfortable playing or doing anything like that?’ I really had to focus on my knee, get my leg stronger and see what I could do.”
Taking the season to weigh all her options, she officially declared in the winter she would return for a redshirt season and entered the spring focused on continuing to attack her rehab for the 2020 campaign.
“I think just attacking it this time and just taking everything with a grain of salt and just taking everything for what it is and attacking it,” Castellano-Mugica said. “Not trying to get around things and not trying to avoid doing things one day because maybe that day sucks, so you think you should take it easy. Instead, just going at everything 100 percent and just never really letting up, I think that is something that maybe in the past I would have been like, ‘Oh, maybe today let’s take off, I’m not feeling up for it,’ but instead just going at it every single time. And yeah, it just feels a lot better staying on myself.”
Continuing to gain strength in her lower body through the early portion of the spring, the redshirt senior and her teammates learned that spring break was going to be extended as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had begun to spread across the globe.
However, despite not being able to continue rehabbing on campus, Castellano-Mugica made the most of her opportunities while working closely with Rapicavoli and athletic trainer Karl Rennalls through Zoom.
“For Lexi, the process was a little more involved due to this being the second time she had torn her ACL,” Rennalls said. “We knew that from the beginning, but between Julia and Lexi, they really worked hard doing as much as possible to get her feeling her best. Lexi was constantly working to get better.
“Lexi and Julia would have daily Zoom rehab sessions, where, luckily, she had a great setup at home to help her get stronger and get back as best as possible,” Rennalls continued. “Lexi was able to even incorporate her family to help her rehab.”
“I think, for me in the spring, I really just focused on getting back into game shape, getting back to soccer shape, where yeah, you might run a 36 on the beep test, but when you get in the game, it is a little bit different,” Castellano-Mugica said. “So, I think, just focusing on that, focusing on the soccer stuff, like touches on the ball. Even though I was home and it wasn’t actual practice with the team, it is still something to do on your own. So, I was just focusing on touches on the ball, getting back, getting comfortable with myself and getting my knee stronger to hopefully be back for this season and be able to play.”
Overall, throughout the entire healing process, she explained that it was Rapicavoli and Rennalls who played the biggest roles on campus, while her girlfriend, Daniela, helped her the most away from the training room.
“For me, my girlfriend was a huge aspect,” Castellano-Mugica said. “Daniela really helped me get through some immensely hard days, where I wasn’t all there and maybe did not want to play or do rehab that day. She helped me stay locked in, stay focused and reset my head in order to be able to do everything. So, for me, she really helped me out with that.
“Also, from a physical stand point, I think Julia, my PT, and Karl staying on top of me was crucial,” Castellano-Mugica added. “Whether it was a hard day, a bad day, a good day, whatever it was, they were always there and consistently pushing me. I think all three of those individuals helped me get through this the most.”
Officially able to rejoin her teammates in August, the defender took the pitch for the first time in over a year and was ready to hit the ground running.
“Before our first training in August, I hadn’t trained with the team in over a year, so it was quite a bit of time. The first month of practice, I needed to get back into it. You can’t be off the field for a year and a half and be like, ‘Yeah, I can play,’” Castellano-Mugica said. “So, yeah, I definitely had to work on a few things. And right now, I feel really good. I feel like there is always stuff to improve on, but I do feel pretty comfortable. I still have good and bad days, but I think right now I have a lot more good days than bad days.”
As the Hurricanes prepare for their second road test of the season at Virginia Sunday at 3 p.m., Castellano-Mugica and her teammates are looking to regroup and focus on making improvements as a unit.
“Coming off the previous games, we obviously struggled a little bit. But I think a lot of the girls are having a very positive mindset and outlook on it to try and help us make the best out of this season,” Castellano-Mugica said. “Obviously, it has been a tough start, but I think we are all going to bounce from that and we are just ready to get after this game.”
Officially taking the field for the first time in a conference tilt since Oct. 25, 2018 against Florida State, Castellano-Mugica entered the pitch against Louisville in the 2020 home opener.
For third-year head coach Sarah Barnes, having the defender back on the pitch was a true testament to all of the hard-work the redshirt senior has put into her recovery over the past 18 months and she is looking forward to what is to come.
“Lexi has worked hard to recover from her second ACL injury and we’re excited to have her back this season,” Barnes said. “It’s awesome to see her playing again. I know Lexi is doing everything she can to continue her recovery and progress back to the ACC level.”
Now, ready for the fifth match of the fall, she is continuing to improve every day both as a student-athlete and a teammate.
“I think, to get back to how I was playing and obviously be even better, and to also really bond with the girls and create friendships that will last a long time,” Castellano-Mugica said. “To just be there for the team and really create a positive atmosphere because there are going to be times this season where it is going to be tough and we all just need to be there for each other and play for each other and realize that through blood, sweat and tears we are out there on the field every day with each other. So, stuff is going to happen, we have to have each other’s backs. So, this season I really just want to create those friendships and moments with the girls and get better and help my teammates get better.”