Patrick DeMeo is the Pirates medical director, and has worked with other professional teams and college athletes for many years. Ask him who is the toughest patient to deal with and he doesn't hesitate to answer.
"The most difficult athlete to treat, including the pro and collegiate athlete, is a high school senior who has lost his or her senior year because of an injury," DeMeo said. "It's terrible. These are kids who have put a tremendous amount of effort into becoming a high school senior athlete. It's their turn and their year and when that suddenly gets ripped away from you, it can leave a tremendous emotional void."
Ever since the dawn of scholastic sports, injuries have taken away the seasons of high school seniors. But the injuries have hit notable WPIAL seniors particulary hard this school year, and not just in football. And everyone from DeMeo, to coaches and parents say what many people don't realize is the emotional toll a season-ending injury can take on a senior athlete -- and even their parents.
Some athletes even battle depression.
"Of all the experiences I've had, still the most difficult aspect for me is to walk into a room in August or September and have to see a kid whose senior year has been snapped away from them, because I know what it can do to them," DeMeo said.
Among the notables who have been hit by the injury bug this season are Washington's Shai McKenzie, a star running back who has scholarship offers from colleges across the country. McKenzie sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the third game and is done for the season.
McKenzie is a high-profile player but a number of other top seniors who maybe weren't getting recruited by big-time college programs have sustained major injuries. New Brighton quarterback Gabe Greco was one of the WPIAL's leading passers after three games but sustained a broken left leg in the fourth game of the season against Aliquippa. Talented Greensburg Central Catholic quarterback Chase Keller was lost for the season with a broken left collarbone in the second game. Adam Mihoci, an all-conference lineman at Franklin Regional, is done for the season with a knee injury. Moon's Anthony Colaianni led the team in rushing last year but has missed the entire season with a knee injury.
But the injury bug has hit seniors in other sports. Peters Township's Veronica Latsko is considered one of the best girls soccer players in WPIAL history. But she will not play this season because of a torn ACL from a spring game.
Karli Paracca scored 35 goals a year ago for the three-time defending WPIAL Class AA champion Mars girls soccer team. But Paracca will miss the entire season because of a torn ACL from a Cup soccer game in June.
At Mars, the Planets must feel like the planets aren't aligned right because what has happened to the girls soccer team with injuries is almost surreal. Paracca is one of four seniors not playing because of torn ACLs. Maggie Sarver and Olivia Haesner had their injuries in May in Cup soccer. Lydia Dennis sustained a torn ACL in a Sept. 14 game against Norwin.
College players can redshirt because of an injury. Pros get paid money even if they are hurt and they always have "next season." But there is only one senior high school season.
"It's incredibly tough to deal with. It's so hard. I'm sorry I'm going to cry here," Paracca said, pausing for a moment to gather herself. "High school is the 'it' moment. I've grown up in this, won so much, trained so hard and you wanted this to be the best year ever. We've won three sections and three WPIALs in a row and you wanted this to be the fourth. It was all in line. It is just so hard to deal with."
Gabe Greco is the youngest of Joe and Patty Greco's three children -- and the only boy. Dad is New Brighton's coach, Patty a big New Brighton football supporter and their family lives and breathes football in the fall. When Gabe threw for 705 yards in the first three games, completed 76 percent of his passes and led the Lions to a 3-0 start, the Greco household was positively giddy.
Then in the fourth game against mighty Aliquippa, Gabe was tackled, his left leg smashed and his senior season was in shambles. Mom took Gabe to the hospital in the second half of the game while dad stayed to coach. A nurse delivered the bad news: a broken fibula.
Gabe Greco couldn't help but start crying on the spot.
"It's hard not to say it's the hardest thing that has ever happened to you," Greco said.
There is a chance Gabe Greco could return for the WPIAL playoffs, but said, "Football is a big part of your life. It's hard to imagine sitting out a game. Even more than one game is pretty devastating. You have all different kinds of emotions and just try to deal with it the best way you can. You try to look at it in a positive way that you're going to come back better than before."
In the first few days after Mc-Kenzie was hurt, it was thought the injury might not be serious. But on a Monday morning, three days after the injury, McKenzie had an MRI, which revealed the ACL tear. Washington coach Mike Bosnic and McKenzie's father, Sean, were in a doctor's office when they got the word.
"The silence that came over the room, and the look on both of their faces ...," Bosnic said. "It was a very diffcult moment. I still hate to even think about it."
A senior can deal with a season-ending injury in different ways. McKenzie said he went into "shutdown mode." He didn't want to talk to the media or even friends.
"I guess it's the hardest thing I ever dealt with," he said. "I didn't really talk to anyone. I don't even like talking about it too much now.
"You just go day by day, try to rehab correctly and basically get ready for for the next step."
Greensburg Central Catholic's Keller might have a future as a college quarterback. But he sustained his broken collarbone on, of all things, defense. He was tackled after he intercpeted a pass.
"I never thought I would get hurt this year," Keller said. "When it happens to someone else, you don't think much of it. When it happens to you, it's really tough."
Keller still has trouble attending practices because he wants to be on the field so bad.
"I give the parents a kind of speech after a surgery," Demeo said. "I tell them their son's or daughter's knee is going to be fine and they will live a normal life, but the issue is not his physical well being. It's going to be his mental well being.
"A lot of them have the 'Why me?' syndrome. 'I worked hard, I have good grades. How come this didn't happen to that idiot instead?' Do they get clinically depressed? Maybe not, but it's hard because it takes away some of their identity."
A season-ending injury to a senior can take an emotional toll on more than just the athlete. Some parents are crushed.
"I think unless this happens to one of your kids, you just don't understand it," Patty Greco said. "What do you say to them when it happens? You just try to be strong for them and positive.
"But the hardest thing is the sadness you see in your son's eyes. As a mom, it just hurts.
"With Gabe, the closer you get to a game, it's harder. On Monday, it's OK. By Thursday, the sadness just picks up even more. On game day, you just don't even know what to say to him."
DeMeo said more and more these days he sees athletes -- and parents -- who are willing to take chances just so their child can play.
"If they have an ACL injury, they want to know why can't they play if they can walk in three weeks?" DeMeo said. "You tell them the reason is because you are going to do more damage to your knee that you might regret when you're 40 or 45 and you might not be able to walk then. But what 17-year-old is thinking about when he's 45?
"I have seen kids with concussions who have absolutely denied symptoms just so they can go out and play. Sometimes, their parents buy into it, too, which is scary."
Season-ending injuries to a senior can affect their college recruiting. Not for top prospects such as McKenzie. The way recruiting is today in many sports, colleges know plenty about top players and have seen enough from top players before their senior years.
McKenzie has narrowed his list to Pitt, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech and all four still want him badly. He will probably graduate early and enroll at one of those schools for the spring semester.
But what about the high school senior who isn't heavily recruited by major colleges, the athlete who hopes to maybe play at a small college?
"Some smaller schools might come in later to recruit, after all the bigger colleges," Bosnic said. "Not having a senior season can be devastating to a kid's future who might want to play at a smaller college."
Mars' Paracca had accepted a scholarship to Kent State and has been told the school will honor the scholarship. She believes attitude is the key to overcoming an injury to a senior.
"If I had to say anything to people this happens to in the future, it would be don't take this as a life-changing experience where you're never going to be as good as you were before," Paracca said. "You can be better. Once you know you can't play any more, you should have so much drive where you can't wait to be on that field again."mobilehome - hsfootball
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White:email@example.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM