Sam Apuzzo has a strict pregame regiment.
Before every game, she’ll eat toast with peanut butter and banana, and she’ll tie her hair back just the same way. If you ask Apuzzo, these aren’t superstitions, they’re just her habits.
Apuzzo might not consider these traditions to be her good luck charms, but fans of Boston College lacrosse might. Because whatever they are, they seem to be working. After eating her toast and braiding her hair, Apuzzo has dazzled on the field for the Eagles in each game this season, racking up shots, goals, assists—and most importantly, wins—for the Maroon and Gold. For this reason, she is The Heights’ 2016-17 female breakout athlete of the year.
As a rookie, Apuzzo dominated the field. Through nine games, she had 21 goals and four assists, on pace for an excellent freshman year. But suddenly, her first campaign for BC was cut short in the Eagles’ win over Syracuse. Apuzzo stepped down hard in front of the goal and something in her knee just went wrong. She fell to the turf with a torn ACL.
An ACL tear is a devastating injury for any athlete, let alone a freshman hitting her stride early in her college career. Often, athletes who tear an ACL are at an increased risk for repeat injuries later. They don’t have the same stability in their knees that they once did. Recovery is a long process that usually requires surgery. Plus, if that isn’t already enough, tearing an ACL is an extremely painful injury, and it is most athletes’ biggest fear. Many athletes never return to pre-injury form after tearing an ACL.
Apuzzo’s head coach, Acacia Walker, characterized her injury as “awful.”
“It’s so terrible to see someone who’s devoted themselves to hard work have it ripped away,” Walker said. “I always tell my players they’ve got 48 hours to be as sad as they want to be, but then it’s time to get back to work.”
Apuzzo certainly did get back to work. She spent the entire offseason rehabbing to return to top form for her sophomore season. She participated in strength and conditioning alongside her teammates. But when they got onto the field, Apuzzo remained in the gym. She biked, lifted, and worked out, all the time determined to bounce back from her injury even better than before.
Fortunately for Apuzzo, she had a role model to look to in handling her torn ACL. Sarah Mannelly, BC ’16, also dealt with a torn ACL during her college lacrosse career. She bounced back, excelled on the field for BC, and became a top-25 Tewaaraton finalist during her senior year. Apuzzo admired Mannelly’s determination and skill. She knew that regaining the pre-injury level of talent wasn’t impossible—her close friend had just done it.
So Apuzzo worked throughout the offseason, watching her teammates play from afar, constantly aware of the fact that her lacrosse skills might get rusty after so many months without practicing. In fact, Apuzzo wasn’t even able to play lacrosse until the preseason. But when she finally did pick up a stick again, it was as if nothing had changed. She was still an elite lacrosse player—but this season, she wouldn’t have to deal with a catastrophic injury. Nor did she let the memory of her injury hinder her in any way.
“I knew that she would get herself to a really good place for the team, and that’s exactly what she’s done,” Walker said.
Those who know Apuzzo know she would give it her all from the outset, but it would have been easy to expect her to get out to a slow start. After all, she’d have to clear both mental and physical barriers to get back to top form. After serious injuries, some athletes are timid coming out of the gates again, reluctant to do anything that might set them back. For those athletes, it takes time to adjust to the mental aspects of the game until everything is exactly how it was before the injury. And that’s not to mention that lacrosse is a sport consisting of a lot of running over a long period of time, and physically getting back into that groove is tough. But from the start of the 2017 season, Apuzzo showed her dangerous skill.
In the season opener against the College of the Holy Cross—her first game back—Apuzzo tallied three points on a goal and two assists. Four days later, she put up 10 points against the University of Massachusetts, including seven assists. Her numbers continued to rise and remain strong throughout the season, highlighted by six-goal games against Boston University and the University of Virginia.
One of the best combinations for BC (and worst for opponents) this season has been Apuzzo and senior attacker Kate Weeks. Together, Apuzzo and Weeks are nearly unstoppable. They are both highly skilled offensive players who know how to finish and earn points for their teams. Apuzzo is aware that their time together is coming to a close, but she’s making the most of the time they have left.
“We’ve had a really good connection on the field,” Apuzzo said. “She’s an incredible player and person.”
Apuzzo and Weeks have each put up strong numbers this season, but Apuzzo holds the advantage. She has scored 64 goals this season, including at least five in six different games, while also adding 29 assists, good for an astounding 93 total points this season. She leads the team in points this season—but then again, it’s not that surprising, because she practically leads the whole country in points.
As of publication, Apuzzo is No. 2 nationally for points this season, behind only Stony Brook’s Kylie Ohlmiller. And if you peruse the NCAA’s top-50 women’s lacrosse players in a variety of categories, you start to see Apuzzo’s name pop up again and again. She’s ranked No. 4 nationally in goals, with 64, and No. 13 nationally in goals per game, with 3.37. Besides being No. 2 nationally for points, Apuzzo sits at No. 8 for points per game, averaging 4.89 each contest, and No. 49 nationally in assists.
The numbers are impressive enough on their own, but they’re far from the only accolades Apuzzo has gathered this season. She became the fastest Eagle to tally 100 career points, accomplishing the feat in just 25 games. In April, Apuzzo was named ACC Co-Offensive Player of the Week after a two-game stretch where she scored nine goals and added three assists. Just last week, Apuzzo was named to the All-ACC Tournament First Team. And she’s currently one of the 25 nominees to win college lacrosse’s most prestigious accolade, the Tewaaraton Award.
To say that Apuzzo has had an elite sophomore season is pretty much an understatement, but it’s not over yet. The Eagles lost to the eventual champions, the University of North Carolina, in the ACC Tournament, but still have the NCAA Tournament to look forward to later this month. Apuzzo, for her part, hopes the Eagles draw Syracuse in the first round, but is ready for whatever team is unlucky enough to face her next.
And beyond the NCAA Tournament, Apuzzo is looking forward to accepting more of a leadership role as an upperclassman next year. She says that she’s a little quiet, but likes to lead by example, and sees herself as a leader in that way—setting an example for younger players on how to conduct themselves in practice and during games. Walker wastes no time in saying that Apuzzo is a natural leader already.
“She’s just so humble,” Walker said. “She has no idea how much of an impact she has on her teammates.”
Apuzzo, it seems, has an impact on everything—the game, the atmosphere, and her teammates. She has bounced back from a devastating injury with remarkable determination and focus, resulting in an excellent sophomore season and recognition as one of the country’s best players.
Now halfway through her tenure at BC, Apuzzo isn’t changing her winning recipe. As long as she’s got her hair tied back in the same way and her pre-game peanut butter and banana snack, she’ll continue to be the toast of the town.
Featured Image by Amy Searls / theacc.com