By BRIAN CUNNIFF
This was supposed to be Mike Castellano’s year to shine.
The Lower Cape May Regional High School senior was set to be an impact player in three sports and was looking forward to that challenge after enduring shortened seasons as a junior due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those plans suddenly changed on a Saturday afternoon in late October.
Playing against Bordentown in Lower Cape May’s Homecoming football game, Castellano tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while making a tackle.
“When he went down in that football game against Bordentown,” recalled Billy Damiana, an assistant football and head wrestling coach at Lower Cape May, “I knew it was bad. He’s always been the type of kid that, when he got banged up, he’d get right up no matter what. When he didn’t get up, I just knew.”
The injury prevented Castellano from finishing out his football season, while also taking away the entirety of his wrestling and lacrosse seasons.
“You think you’re going to get three full seasons,” Castellano said of his plans for his senior year athletically. “It was really heartbreaking because then you start thinking about all the experiences you’re going to miss out on with your teammates. I had so many things planned and so many goals set. To think that wasn’t going to happen for me … It was tough.”
Castellano didn’t sulk, however. He remained integral parts of each of his three teams, rarely missing a practice, even though, for the most part, he could only sit and watch.
“It was just important to be around and get the support of everybody,” Castellano said. “I could still work out with my coaches and feel like a part of the team.”
Castellano, a linebacker, wingback and quarterback, was one of the most important players on the football team at the time of his injury. He was expected to be a major contributor in wrestling, planning to compete at 144 pounds after going 6-3 during his pandemic-shortened junior season. And in lacrosse, Castellano was projected as a high-impact midfielder and important face-off specialist.
“He’s a 12 varsity letter winner, which is not easy to do these days,” Damiana said. “Even though he couldn’t play, I think being there was an inspiration to some of the other kids who maybe needed a swift kick to put things in perspective.”
Fortunately, Castellano’s athletic career is not complete. He is set to play football at Division III Springfield College in Massachusetts in the fall. He expects to play safety there.
“It’s huge to get this chance to play in college,” Castellano said. “It’s like a dream come true, honestly. After I got hurt, I knew I’d never put on the ‘L-C-M-R’ gear again but to be able to do it at the next level, it’s really special.”
Despite missing out on many athletic experiences, first due to the pandemic and second due to injury, Castellano said he feels he still had a rewarding athletic experience in some ways.
“You really get to see the games from different angles,” he said. “You get to understand a lot more of it when you just sit there and watch. I think I have a more nuanced mindset about sports now. I think it made me mentally tougher, too.”
Damiana said Castellano’s opportunity to play in college also served as motivation during his rehabilitation process.
“There was a driving force there for him to work hard and get better,” Damiana said. “He knew he couldn’t be lazy. To have the opportunity to play at the next level and someone trusts you that you’ll be able to play even after getting hurt … It’s not like it was 20, 30 years ago with ACL injuries because kids can come back better than ever but it still says something that (Springfield) was still very interested in him. He got robbed of a year but now he’s going to get four more years to compete. It’s great for him.”
Castellano has been more than a three-sport athlete at Lower Cape May. He carries a 4.83 grade point average and is ranked fifth in the senior class academically. He said he plans to study sports biology, with the hopes of getting into sports medicine and/or athletic training as an adult.
Castellano said his knee is moving closer to full health with each passing day. He expects to receive complete medical clearance in time to report to Springfield’s preseason camp in early to mid August.
“To be able to play at the next level after everything that’s happened,” Castellano said, “it’s really special.”