Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza has had to overcome setback after setback in her Arizona softball career, recovering from two ACL tears—one in each knee—to become an All-American center fielder.
Her arduous journey hit another snag in March, this one the most improbable of them all, when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 season before it even reached its midpoint.
Hitting .373 with seven homers in 25 games, Palomino-Cardoza was playing some of the best softball of her career but suddenly was facing a grim reality: That her days at Arizona could be over.
“It was all a big question mark,” the redshirt senior said.
Rumors immediately swirled that the NCAA would consider granting spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility to make up for the shortened season, but Palomino-Cardoza braced for both outcomes, knowing it was a complex situation.
Fortunately, the NCAA ruled in the student-athletes’ favor, and APC announced Monday that she will be returning to Arizona in 2021, what will be her sixth season with the program. (Palomino-Cardoza redshirted in her freshman season after suffering an ACL injury in fall practice.)
“I think there in the beginning, when everything first came out, was the roughest,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going on. We thought this is the end. But I think just sticking together is what helped a lot, being able to talk to our teammates and talk to our coaches and knew that whatever the NCAA decided, even if they decided not to, we knew that we had a coaching staff and a university that was going to help us fight for that year.”
Unlike schools like Wisconsin who will not be welcoming back their seniors, citing the financial implications. Arizona head coach Mike Candrea—one of the most outspoken proponents for eligibility relief—wasn’t going to let his seniors go out that way.
“He treats us like we’re his own kids and we know that he would lay his life down for us,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
Once an extra year was on the table, Palomino-Cardoza quickly accepted it, calling the decision to return for a sixth season an “instant yes” despite her lengthy injury history.
“And a lot of people have asked why because of [my] body, and I’ve talked to other people who are in my position with knee injuries and it is hard,” she said. “There’s a lot of pain and mental stuff that goes into it but I started something in an Arizona uniform and I want to finish it the way I want to, playing four years and finishing four years is the goal.”
Double majoring in psychology and sociology, Palomino-Cardoza was set to graduate this May but recently added a minor in sports management so she can delay her commencement and remain a student-athlete for another year.
But if there is anything she’s learned in college, it’s to not take anything for granted.
“It goes by super fast and I never thought I’d have a fifth year, let alone a chance for a sixth year,” she said. “So definitely just soak up every moment of it. Learn everything you can. I’ve learned so much being an Arizona uniform, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. I know I’m meant to be here, so I’m just taking it day by day.”
Fellow senior Jessie Harper joked that the only good thing about the 2020 season being canceled and all these stay-at-home orders being in place is that Palomino-Cardoza can use the time off to rest her knees.
“That girl is broken down,” Harper laughed. “But, no, Alyssa is such a hard worker and I know that she’s going to do everything in her power to come back on the field, but she’s definitely put a lot of time in that college uniform. That’s a lot of school she’s doing but she’s making the most of it, and without her on the team, I don’t think we’d be complete.”
So far, Palomino-Cardoza is prepping for the 2021 season by rehabbing her knee, weight training and, for some reason, running.
“I don’t know why I did that,” she chuckled, “but me and my siblings play Over The Line, so we’re just having some fun, playing outside and being kids.”
Though Palomino-Cardoza is far from a kid at this point. She will be 23 by the time she steps in for her next at-bat. Her teammates have been oh-so-quick to remind her.
“They’ve already started to call me great grandma and I’ve already made a joke about it, but I’m excited,” she said. “I get to play with a class I didn’t think I was going to play with, and I was friends with them even before all this happened, so it’ll be cool to get to experience a season with them—and being a great grandma.”