Victoria Cole, a senior at Indian Hills High School, has maintained a positive attitude despite two torn ACLs that have limited her high school basketball experience.
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, in a surprisingly crowded gym for a JV girls Christmas tournament game, #11 in blue and gold drove to the basket and scored off a high layup. I inadvertently clap, smile, then nod at the player’s proud mom in the stands. In the opposing stands.
“Did you just cheer for Indian Hills?” a freshman says to me from the Old Tappan bench, confused as to why her usually stoic coach is celebrating a basket, let alone an opponent’s bucket on our defense.
“Yeah, sorry, couldn’t help it. That’s Mrs. Cole’s daughter.” The collective knowing “Ohhhhh” from the rest of the bench means they get it now. I was happy for my colleague and friend’s daughter, and happy that Old Tappan was still winning comfortably enough to smirk.
I’ve known Victoria Cole since she was in preschool at NVOT’s Teens and Tots program, a great place for preschoolers and high school students to learn together. Many teachers bring their kids to work, so to speak, by dropping them off in the morning at the Tots room and picking them up after the high school day lets out. It’s a staple of the Northern Valley community, and where I first met a young Victoria Cole. She was sitting in the back of the minivan while her mom and I cleaned off snow from the afternoon squall. Most kids would impatiently whine. V just smiled.
“After I left the tots, my mom would tell me that you asked about how I was doing. I remember you always wanted what was best for me,” Victoria said. “AAU season is a much clearer memory because even though we are close off of the court, my competitiveness takes over on the court, and there was nothing more I wanted in the world than to beat you and your team.”
Victoria Cole gets a hug from her head coach, Julie Haledjian, on Senior Night.
A true competitor, Victoria was always the hardest playing player on any team I faced in the spring AAU circuit in North Jersey and Rockland County.
“You coaching against me was and continues to be one of the best parts of every single basketball season. Once it’s game time, my competitive edge kicks in and I can’t help but play my hardest against your teams. I would always get a sense of nervousness and anxiousness during these games because you were always someone who I wanted to make proud,” said Cole. “My coaches are able to see me grow every day in practice and games, but when I play against you, it was my one time to shine and prove to you how far I’ve come as a player. You coaching against me is like my own family coaching against me, because you’re not just another coach to me, but you’re a mentor.”
When it came time for Victoria to choose a high school, I knew she had the option to come to Old Tappan since her mom is an art teacher in the district and, selfishly, I wanted to coach her, but as Victoria said, I always want what's best for her. When Julie Haledjian took over the Indian Hills program, I knew V-Cole would be coached by one of the best young female coaches in North Jersey, a relentless competitor who I coached against and then saw compete at a high level in college and who has a tremendous wealth of knowledge and passion for women’s basketball.
If Victoria wasn’t going to leave her friends to come to OT, I knew she would be part of another great blue and gold program up at Indian Hills with Haledjian at the helm. It all seemed to be working out for the best, and we even got lucky enough to be matched up in the Holy Angels Christmas Tournament in V’s freshman year.
I was very much looking forward to seeing her at the varsity level, as were her coaches at Indian Hills.
Then it happened.
Victoria Cole's support system included her fellow seniors in the Class of 2020.
“Sophomore year, I tore my right ACL and lateral meniscus. I missed the tail end of my sophomore season of basketball, the entirety of my junior year of volleyball and basketball, managed to play summer league and part of fall league of my junior summer,” said Cole. “And then I tore my left ACL and missed out on half of my senior year of volleyball and my whole senior basketball season.”
The curse of the ‘Double ACL,’ something we see far too often in high school girls’ sports. Northjerseysports.com chronicled the story of another double ACL club member, Kyra Uglione of Old Tappan, who is now finally back for her senior year.
It comes as no surprise that Kyra reached out to Victoria as soon as she heard, despite the fact they didn’t know each other.
“Kyra Uglione has been my saving grace for my senior year, and I say this with no hesitation, nor any exaggeration. When my first ACL tear happened, I was motivated and positive on getting back to play since I was only in my sophomore year of high school. However, with my second ACL tear, I was stunned and got very upset, very quickly. After finding out about the news, my mom reached out to the athletic trainer at her school, as well as you (Christine Massaro) to inform you on my bad news. You both suggested that I get in contact with a girl at your school who had been through the same injury, and I thank God for this suggestion,” said Cole. “Kyra had reached out to me first to break the ice and ensure me that even though it might seem like the end of the world, that everything was going to be okay. We went back and forth the whole day texting and she kept me positive. Fast forward to a couple weeks later, and I finally put a face to the number that I had been texting: Kyra had met me at our volleyball game at Old Tappan and I remember her being so easy to talk to and completely understood everything I was saying because she had been through the same thing.
“Fast forward again to basketball season and every time we see each other, both of our faces light up and we greet one another with a friendly smile. I know that if I ever face a blip in my rehab process, that Kyra will be glad to help me out and that she is someone that I can rely on for as long as I need her. In a similar manner, a girl on my team just tore her ACL and meniscus and after knowing how much of an impact Kyra made on my life, I made it a point to reach out to her and let her know that I was willing to help with any mental or physical blocks she may have.”
The ACL club is the worst part of high school sports, but Victoria has now become an ambassador like Kyra Uglione was for her. Let’s hope to break the chain there.
Unfortunately for Victoria, however, there would be no senior comeback, no happy ending story like Kyra’s, but in a touching gesture by both Indian Hills and Bergenfield, Victoria was allowed to suit up for senior night and crack the starting lineup for one non-contact play, a tip-off pass to her for a layup.
In our conversation about what keeps her motivated and positive, Victoria was quick to mention her teammates, “the girls who I have been playing with forever and help me to grow as a person: Lizzie Russo, Rachel Logatto, Kristina Rainey, Madison Cipriani, Calli O’Neal, Megan Sears, Leah Turner, and Carly Spinella. All of these girls push me every single day to be better, whether they give me motivation to go to physical therapy or let me correct them on the court without having any hard feelings towards me, they are always there for me and will always have my back. In specific, the first 4 girls mentioned have been my absolute rocks,” said Cole. “The five of us have been playing since elementary school and they never fail to pick me up when I’m upset. They are the true reason that I continue to show up to every single practice and game even though I cannot play.”
Indian Hills girls basketball is run by a great core of coaches and Victoria acknowledges their positive influence, as well.
“My coaches kept me in check and calmed me down at my most frustrated times. My coach right now, Julie Haledjian, has taught me the true meaning of what a team player is, and even though I have not been on the court for the past two years, she never gave up on me and has faith in me. She treats me like I’m one of the players out on the court and constantly keeps me motivated. Even when I managed to return to play in our summer league games, she never gave up on my abilities, despite my rusty skills,” said Cole. “In specific, current assistant coach, Jillian Hochuli, was and continues to be nothing short of amazing in giving up her wisdom and advice to me. Jill had blown out her knee in her junior year of high school and was able to come back to play for her senior year. More recently, she was doing all she could for our team as she was scrimmaging against us and managed to re-tear her ACL. She is a woman whom I believe should not go unnoticed and is one that gave it her all for her team when she played, as well as for our team now. She gave me the advice that I needed to hear, and now we both face rehab and the frustration that this injury can have on a person. We rely on one another and this special bond between a coach and a player is one that has pushed me to stay strong.
“Finally, together between my mom and dad, my physical therapists, and my surgeon they all allow me to stay determined and willing to heal my body. As for my home life, my family did not know what to do at first, but we all soon adjusted to our new life of rehabbing a major accident. I would need extra help after surgery and constantly need someone to drive me to doctor’s appointments as well as physical therapy. When at PT, it was always a positive and encouraging environment, which was crucial for someone who was convinced her life was over. Between my doctor/boss, Robert Freund, and the staff members, I could not ask for a better crew to get me up and game ready. In the end, the entire rehabilitation part could not be done without my surgeon, Dr. Robert Anthony (Tony) DeFalco. My uncle’s college roommate, Tony was more than willing to help with both of my ACL tears and he is the person I am most thankful for. He treated me as family and made sure that I knew that he was in it for the long run and wanted to see me succeed. This triad of people in my life all made me want to get better and did not let me give up on myself when I thought that all hope was lost. They, along with the others mentioned previously, push me every single day and are the reason that I focus on the positives when describing my past with injuries.”
After going through two grueling injuries, surgeries and the constant rehabilitation process, how could someone find a silver lining when her once-promising career was cut short?
Somehow, Victoria Cole has applied that same positive mindset to her career goals for life beyond high school athletics (yes, that does exist, but most high school student athletes don’t realize it).
“Before tearing both my ACLs, I was clueless as to what I wanted to pursue as a career or even major in college. I had a dream to follow my father’s footsteps in government law enforcement; however, it all changed as my life in sports did. After my surgery, I attended PT religiously, I walked into physical therapy every day with a big smile on my face, ready to work hard at rehabilitation, and to my surprise, the doctor took notice. After 3 months of attending PT, my doctor became my boss. I was offered a job to assist the PTAs in order to get an idea for my career path as well as earn some money for myself,” said Cole. “If it wasn’t for both my injuries, I never would’ve realized that Physical Therapy was the career path for me. Working with such a caring staff helped me understand this was the type of environment I wanted to spend the rest of my life in. I call my first ACL my blessing in disguise.”
The second ACL?
Just plain unfair, in my opinion, but at least she’s learned to find her career path in the blessings in disguise. We should all be as positively perceptive as Victoria Cole.
Victoria plans on becoming a basketball coach in her future.
Christine Massaro is a faculty member and assistant girls basketball coach at Northern Valley/Old Tappan High School.
TO BUY A COLLECTOR'S PRINT OF THIS STORY PLEASE VISIT 4-FeetGrafix.com.