Holding themselves up with crutches and hobbled along the sideline during most of last football season, Matt DeCello and Mike Tambellini found themselves merely cheering on their Bishop Canevin teammates.
A pair of wide receivers, both sustained tears to an anterior cruciate ligament and missed a majority of their junior seasons. Tambellini's ACL injury was in his left leg during the Crusaders' second game of last season against Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, which was just one week after DeCello was injured in Bishop Canevin's opener against Avonworth.
"I was dying to get back on the football field," said DeCello, who lives in South Fayette Township. "I guess I didn't appreciate the game of football until I was out for an entire season."
After months of rehabilitation, both DeCello and Tambellini were able to make full recoveries and each ended up playing a key role in the Crusaders' offensive scheme this season, balancing out the running game as targets for quarterback Nico DiPaolo.
They both helped the Crusaders' drive to the WPIAL playoffs. Canevin (6-3, 6-3) finished in a three-way tie for third place with Brentwood and Imani Christian in the highly competitive Black Hills Conference and will play North Catholic Friday in a WPIAL Class A first-round playoff game at Stone Field in North Park.
Bishop Canevin finished behind Clairton (9-0, 9-0) and Monessen (8-1, 8-1) in the conference standings.
"We had a couple big receivers last year and those two guys gave us a tremendous amount of depth," longtime Bishop Canevin coach Bob Jacoby said. "This year, they turned into our top receivers, and that's with them even missing a year of experience, too.
"They worked hard during the offseason and were determined to get through the rehabilitation."
Besides football, both Tambellini and DeCello are members of Bishop Canevin's basketball and track and field teams.
"I was really looking forward to playing football," said Tambellini, who lives in Bridgeville. "I just wanted to play one more game so much."
Although the pair of teammates sustained similar injuries in a short period of time from one another, they both took different paths toward returning to the football field.
"We supported each other and talked about what we were doing in our rehabs," Tambellini said. "We had the same injury but we took different roads to recover. He could run and walk before I could, but I was able to practice before him.
"We still were able to come back and we've accomplished a lot just in that."
Tambellini, a 6-foot, 183-pound wide receiver/linebacker, also serves as the Crusaders' punter, using the very same left leg he injured last year.
"They both were able to get past the injury and over the idea of taking a hit again," Jacoby said. "And that's a big positive. They play with very little concern about their injuries, and that's a testament to the hard work they put in during the offseason."
Tambellini leads Bishop Canevin's receiving corps with 32 receptions for 564 yards and five touchdowns.
"Mike is the fastest receiver we have," Jacoby said. "He runs great patterns and has great hands. He's very athletic and really performs beyond expectations."
DeCello is a 5-11, 166-pound receiver/defensive back and has caught 17 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns.
"Matt runs disciplined pass patterns," Jacoby said. "We don't throw the football 20 or 30 times a game, so we get the maximum out of our passing game. Matt makes big catches and gets key first downs, and that's extra important."
DeCello believes he and Tambellini had no problem getting their timing down with DiPaolo because all three grew up together playing youth football for the South Hills Saints while attending Our Lady of Grace School in Scott Township. DiPaolo actually lives a block away from DeCello in South Fayette Township.
"Nico is a first-year quarterback and started as a defensive back last year," Jacoby said. "He didn't throw the ball last year. The combination of those three has been important this season and it goes back to the work they put in together before the season.
"Nico has only two interceptions in 141 attempts and has thrown for close to 1,100 yards with seven touchdowns. In nine games, that's not even 20 attempts a game. We get maximum production from him."
"We've played great together as a team and we've executed," said DeCello, who plans on studying finance and accounting in college next year. "That's a recipe for success. We just need to keep doing what's worked for us so far."