It was Friday, March 11, 2022, at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. Ball State Women’s Basketball was taking on Toledo in the Semifinal of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament.
After tearing her ACL in her first season with the Cardinals in 2019-20, Estel Puiggros only played in 11 games the next season. Her third season, in 2021-22, Puiggros played 17 minutes per game through 30 games, feeling the best she had in her entire time at Ball State.
In that semifinal, the Cardinals were beating the No. 1 seed Rockets, and Puiggros was on her way to playing for a MAC Championship the next day against Buffalo. That was until she fell to the hardwood floor with a non-contact injury.
Brad Bunten, assistant athletic trainer for Ball State, said “you don’t ever forget that feeling” of tearing your ACL. Even though he was on the opposite end of the court, he could tell by Puiggros’ reaction that she knew she tore her ACL for the second time.
“Not again,” Puiggros yelled, smacking the floor with tears running down her face.
Another season-ending injury on the same leg. Head coach Brady Sallee said whenever a player goes down with an injury, it's a “wind out of the sails feeling.”
Puiggros said it’s hard for her to remember a lot of what happened in Cleveland, although she has watched it back since. However, she does remember Sallee by her side on the floor holding her hand, she remembers Bunten’s reassuring words and remembers her teammates crying as she made her way to the trainer’s room.
Bunten remembers during halftime, he and Puiggros were in the trainer’s room dealing with her injury when Sallee walked in. The head coach put his arm around the player to encourage her. Bunten said that meant a lot to Puiggros because during the limited 15-minute halftime, Sallee and other coaches took that time to check on the wounded Cardinal.
Sallee made his way to the locker room not only to make adjustments before the second half, looking to secure victory and punch Ball State’s ticket to the MAC Championship game, but to reassure Puiggros’ teammates. Puiggros, too, left the trainer’s room and approached the doorway to the locker room, wanting to be with her teammates.
“She looks back at me, and she's like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I said, ‘Go in there, be with your team.’ And I can remember [Sallee] stopping what he was saying and telling the team, ‘Take a deep breath, we're whole again. Our family is whole again because someone in that locker room was missing,’” Bunten said. “For those few minutes, they didn't know what was going on with Estel, she wasn't there with the team, and for him, just in the moment, he stopped what he was doing, stopped making his adjustments in this big game and helped the team to appreciate, ‘Hey, our family's whole again, she's back with us.’”
The tears Puiggros shed on the court when she sustained the injury less than an hour before came back. Now, they were different tears, ones that reminded her of how much the Cardinals feel like her family.
Puiggros said when she went down with her second injury, there was a moment where she was worried she may never play again, having now experienced the same injury twice. One of the things she did to get her mind away from negativity was spending time with those she counts as family.
Some people Puiggros leaned on during her recovery process were redshirt senior Anna Clephane, who was also going through rehab on a torn ACL at the time: her mother, father and brother, Ivet Subirats, junior guard at Florida A&M (previously at Ball State) and her roommate and self-proclaimed best friend, senior Annie Rauch.
“Sometimes you have those days where you're like, ‘I don't know if I can do it. I just want to be out there and play again,’” Puiggros said. “They were just like, ‘You're doing good. Think about two months ago, you couldn’t even walk [and now], you’re about to be out on the court again.’ I just know that without them, I just couldn't have done it.”
If she wasn’t spending time with those closest to her, Puiggros gained comfort from journaling. She said she writes everything in her head and processes different scenarios through this, and when she doesn’t have a pen and pad, she talks to herself to achieve the same results.
“Sometimes people get hurt and [doctors] just say, ‘You just can't play basketball anymore.’ And I'd be like, ‘What if I don't recover from this?’ I would put all the perspectives in and I'd be like, ‘What if I'm not able to play basketball again?’” Puiggros said. “And I was like, ‘You got to be positive about it. I can do all these other things that can make me happy as well.’ That's what helps me the most … I just write.”
Puiggros’ initial diagnosis outlined a 10-month recovery period, putting her back in action in January. Bunten said he remembered Puiggros attending rehab less than 24 hours after her surgery because she knew that’s the dedication it would take to rehab as quickly yet efficiently as possible.
“I can remember she was still hopped up on painkillers, and she had a nerve block in, and I turned my back on her, and I look back, and she's kind of falling asleep on the table just because she was kind of out of it,” Bunten said. “But she knew she had to show up and put that work in on the first day.”
Though Bunten felt Puiggros’ experience going through ACL rehab before helped her familiarize herself with what all she needed to do to get back to full strength, he also knows she was at a low point mentally. He said it felt like all the progress Puiggros made had been torn down, and she had to build it all back up.
Puiggros said tearing her ACL for a third time is still in the back of her mind to this day.
“Basketball is what I love the most in this world,” Puiggros said. “So I always know I'm going to be connected to it one way or another.”
Over the summer, Puiggros had to rehab her injury, but she still returned home to Spain. However, Bunten said it was at a good time in the recovery process because since she was about six weeks through, she was able to start walking on her own, so she wouldn’t have to do rehab with Bunten everyday. He still worked with her remotely and was able to tell she put work in while she was away, as seen when she returned to Indiana.
During the time she was preparing to miss a significant chunk of the season, she was mentally preparing herself to be the best teammate and leader possible, something she didn’t lose sight of even after being cleared three months ahead of schedule.
“I will say that I have a high IQ level in basketball, so I try to make [newcomers] and the people that have always been in the team understand some other parts of the game that they might not be able to see,” Puiggros said. “I'm trying to help them as much as I can … even though sometimes I don't play. I am not playing as much as I was, but it is what it is. I'm just coming back from an injury, but I'm just trying to be positive about it.”
Since returning for the 2022-23 season, Puiggros has played in 20 of 30 games, with her average minutes down to 8.6 per game. Bunten and Sallee said if Puiggros has any reservations about not playing as much, it doesn’t show.
“What's great to see is that it hasn't changed in the face of adversity. She's remained true to who she is,” Sallee said. “She wants to be playing more, and you want kids to think that way. But through that frustration of not playing more, she's stayed [just] as genuine, and she's got a big heart; she's about the team.”
After the emotional halftime of the Ball State vs. Toledo semifinal in 2022, the Cardinals completed the upset, defeating Toledo 71-66 to advance to the MAC Championship game. Without Puiggros, Ball State fell to Buffalo 79-75 the next day.
While Puiggros said she feels like she would have been able to help the Cardinals if she was healthy for the contest against the Bulls, she doesn’t feel guilty about whether their four-point loss being due to her absence. Throughout the entire 2022-23 season, Ball State has been driven by that defeat.
“Our goal is to win the MAC Tournament, and I know that we're more than capable to do that,” Puiggros said. “We all believe in it. I just know that we're gonna go out there, and I'm gonna have my mindset of ‘I don't care who is in front of us.’ We're gonna play the best we can, and we know that if we put out our best, it's very hard to beat us.”
The 2023 MAC Championship Tournament is set for March 8, 10-11, 2023 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland.
Puiggros said emotions are still triggered when Ball State visits Western Michigan, where she tore her ACL the first time. She is counting on those emotions being brought up when the Cardinals travel to Cleveland.
If the Cardinals make it to the championship game in 2023, it will come one year to the day of Puiggros’ second ACL tear. For her, a MAC Championship would mean even more.
“I don't think there's words to describe it,” Puiggros said. “I think it would just be amazing because we also know that it hasn't happened in a long time, and last year, we were right there, and it just came down to the last seconds, and it was just very upsetting. But we've been working on it, [and] we've been working our asses [off] through every single game.”
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KyleSmedley_.