When UMass Lowell women’s basketball senior captain Leilani Rodriguez suffered her fourth ACL injury, she couldn’t help but laugh.
It happened in a scrimmage against Hofstra before her junior year. Rodriguez corralled a routine rebound and felt her right tibia pop out of place. She can distinctly remember every tear but has grown accustomed to what the severe injury feels like.
“I cursed first — then I started laughing, and then I was able to walk it off,” she said. “But I kind of already knew. I just knew it was my ACL.”
Rodriguez, a Worcester native, is now healthy and a starting guard for the River Hawks (0-4). She scored 20 points in a season-opening 60-58 loss to Boston University that marked her breakout return to action. But she wasn’t trying to make a point. She just wanted to play basketball.
“They were making a big deal like it was a statement: I’m back,” Rodriguez said. “Honestly, I was just playing. I got the looks, I got them down. It feels pretty good.”
ACL tears are among the most significant injuries for athletes in any sport, and women are often at higher risk because of biological differences in their knees and a history of having fewer resources. The past few years have tested Rodriguez’s body and spirit.
She first tore her left ACL in 2017 while playing one-on-one; at the time, she was a sophomore at Worcester Academy. Then she tore her right ACL as a high school senior, suffered an additional partial tear as a UMass Lowell freshman, and tore it fully again in that Hofstra scrimmage.
In total, Rodriguez has twice torn her right ACL completely, plus the partial tear, and her left once.
“This third [complete tear] really just mentally messed me up, because I just went through a whole other process,” she said. “It’s year after year. I hurt myself. Come back, do it again. Come back. Do it again ...
“Yeah, that one took a mental toll.”
Rodriguez readily calls herself an ACL injury veteran. The most recent tear was the easiest for her physically because she knew what to expect for most of the rehab process, and the research around ACL injury recovery has improved over time. She was strengthening her quad muscles and working on bending her knee even before surgery, and she was out of a brace four weeks after it.
“I think now, even from her first to her last [injury], the surgeries, the rehab, the ‘prehab’ is completely different,” UMass Lowell coach Denise King said. “So when you tear it, they get you into prehab stuff right away.”
That doesn’t take away the pain early on, explained King, who has seen players and former teammates grapple with the injury in addition to having her own knee issues.
“I think the beginning of it, it’s just like, you wake up, you’re in a lot of pain,” King said. “You’re sore, you’re locked out, you’ve got to get used to the blood rushing through your knee when you stand up.”
Rodriguez found outlets during the time she was sidelined; she loves drawing scenery and is passionate about fishing, often bopping around to different ponds in Massachusetts. She has a close relationship with her mother, Denice Reyes, a nurse who has been her rock through every long day of recovery.
Rodriguez also kept her injury in perspective and said that recognizing her blessings when others are dealing with more significant hardships kept her grounded.
But she had to learn how to shed the expectation that mentally tough athletes power through pain. King believes she has become more forthcoming about her body’s needs and is less hesitant to ask for more warmup time or an extra exercise to get ready.
“I think she’s just done a really good job of trying to remain positive and trying to attack each day,” King said. “And now — whereas before she wasn’t — now I feel like she does a better job of letting us know how she’s feeling.”
“I never was honest with how I felt,” said Rodriguez. “That is a stigma — you can’t just be honest about how you feel. ‘It’s practice, I’ve got to thug it out, you’ve got to do it, it is what it is.’ But now I realize that that’s not going to benefit me.”
The Worcester native has had surgery three times. She has passed out from the pain of an injury, repeated months of intense rehab, and missed more than half of her collegiate career. With so much pain and frustration, why wouldn’t she just quit?
“The simple answer is I love basketball,” she said. “When I think about life after this and life without basketball, it just doesn’t seem normal to me.”
Harvard junior Harmoni Turner eclipsed 1,000 career points in the Crimson’s 78-57 win over UMass last Thursday, scoring 22 in the victory ... Boston College sophomore transfer Teya Sidberry tallied a career-high 22 points in Sunday’s 71-56 win against Providence ... Holy Cross coach Maureen Magarity remained at 199 career wins after Tuesday niht’s 63-53 setback at Villanova.
Ethan Fuller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.