June 18, 2019 | 75° F

Injuries to Rutgers seniors strengthens bond

Photo by Daphne Alva |

Senior midfielder Cassie Inacio sat out her junior season after rare surgery to fix an injury to her sesamoid bone in her foot.

When Tori Leigh heard the pop, she knew.

It was a sound she had heard before and a pain she had felt before. As she lay on the practice field grass in agony, the Rutgers women’s soccer team backer knew she had torn her left anterior cruciate ligament. 

An MRI later confirmed the injury to the ligament that centrally connects the femur to the tibia.

With the injury occurring in the spring semester of her junior year, Leigh’s senior season was over before it even had the chance to start.

But having gone through the recovery process after tearing her right ACL in high school, Leigh knew what it was going to take to come back after redshirting — and she was determined to make sure she returned to the field even stronger than ever before.

“There was no doubt in my mind,” Leigh said. “I wanted to come back, and I wanted to play in my senior year. … It was bittersweet because, yeah, it was difficult. I had to go through surgery, I had to go through rehab, I had to sit out a whole year, but at the end of the day, I got to be able to play in the Big Ten and I was able to have the opportunities I wouldn’t have had.”

As her team went on to post a 13-4-5 record and an NCAA Tournament berth, Leigh watched from the sidelines — but she wasn’t alone.

After seeing action in the first three games of the 2013 campaign, Cassie Inacio was ruled out for the remainder of the season. 

In her first year serving as one of three co-captains, the midfielder was forced to sit out due to a rare foot injury that lingered since the end of her sophomore season, a year in which she started 19 out of 22 games.

“At the end of my sophomore season, over that winter break, I just woke up one morning and my foot … I couldn’t even bend my toes or anything,” Inacio said.

At first, doctors couldn’t pinpoint an accurate diagnosis. Inacio received treatment for what was believed to be an infection but two months later was diagnosed with a broken sesamoid.

There are two sesamoids located under the base of the big toe. Both small bones provide leverage for movement in the ball of the foot, something clearly critical not just for an athlete to cut and run, but for any person to do something as simple as walking.

Inacio wore a walking boot on her foot for six months in an effort to rehab the injury rather than go through a rare surgery. But when the recovery yielded no progress, doctors elected to scrap her junior season and go the route of surgery.

“[The surgeons] went in and took out that bone [and] repaired the tendon … it was about a six- or seven-month recovery after that,” Inacio said. “So, yeah, it was a pretty long time.” 

During that recovery process, Leigh and Inacio grew closer. They endured the gruesome recovery processes that kept them off the soccer field together.

“It was hard for me because it was at the end of the semester, so I had to deal with surgery and getting to classes and finishing finals before I could really focus on myself,” Leigh said. “But it’s pretty painful the first couple of weeks. … I couldn’t straighten my leg.”

For Inacio, her steep hill back to recovery was much of the same.

“My recovery was really long. … It was kind of like a grueling process,” Inacio said. “But I mean, everyday, having my teammates and coaches tell me they believed I would come back strong and watching them work hard everyday and see that. … I just couldn’t wait to be back.”

As both players worked to recover from their respective injuries, they leaned on each other for support. 

“When I was going through a bad day or Cassie was going through a bad day, we were able to talk to each other, and we were able to kind of hangout at practice because we weren’t allowed to play,” Leigh said. “… You’re very happy for the person next to you, especially when you know they’ve gone through something you have, too.”

Inacio, who played alongside Leigh on the same summer team leading up to the season as the two got back into the motions of maneuvering on the soccer field, credited Leigh’s constant positivity as extra motivation.

“Tori’s just always an inspiration. She’s just a really good person,” Inacio said. “… I think the mental [part] of coming back is way worse than any physical, so I think to have somebody to share that with and somebody that understands what you’re going through at the same time was really helpful … for the both of us.”

Since coming back for the 2014 season, both have made their marks.

On the defensive backline, Leigh has played four consecutive games and been a reliable contributor off the bench for one of the top defenses in the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, Inacio was named a co-captain for the second year in a row. 

While still taking the precautionary steps on her recovered foot, Inacio has seen action in all 11 games this year for the Scarlet Knights. 

She earned her first start of the season in last Sunday’s 4-0 win over Purdue — a good sign of the progress the senior has made as the season inches closer to the postseason and the games get bigger.

Most importantly, both have been integral voices as leaders of a No. 20 Rutgers team and aided a seamless transition under first-year head coach Mike O’Neill. The Knights boast a 9-1-1 overall record and a 5-1-1 mark in Big Ten play.

O’Neill had high praise for the work ethic and determination Leigh and Inacio have had coming back on the long road from their respective injuries. 

“Any time you have the injury both of them had … it takes a while for you to get your game legs,” O’Neill said. “… It’s not only the successes, [but] it’s the failures, it’s the going through the frustrations of getting back to a level you can play at, and I think they have done that.”

As someone who has been around the program for 14 years now and has seen the development of each player in their tenures at Rutgers, O’Neill is glad to have two leaders back and healthy to add to the dynamic of this year’s team.

“They’re very important to our success not only from a leadership standpoint, but just on the field with experience,” O’Neill said. “… Going through all of that, and the current place that they’re in … I’m really happy with where they are. I couldn’t imagine being in this position without them.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

Garrett Stepien

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