WATERTOWN – For Watertown-Mayer High School senior Monika Czinano, nothing has come easy.
As an eighth grader, Czinano got the call to come up to the varsity basketball team, something she was working her tail off for since she picked up a basketball. Even from a young age, Czinano knew what her goal in the game of basketball would be.
While it looked like she was off to a promising start before her high school career really got going, the likelihood of her reaching that goal took a big hit when she was just 15 years old.
When Czinano was just a kid, she had her birthday party at a University of Minnesota basketball game. Since that day, the goal to play college basketball has been on her sights ever since.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be able to play at that level,” Czinano said. “I had a birthday party at the University of Minnesota one time. You got to meet with the basketball players, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Czinano took the moment and held on to it as she set her sights on reaching her goal. After being called up to the varsity level, she suffered an ATV accident where she broke her femur and arm at the same time. A promising future in the game of basketball took a hit for Czinano before she even had the real chance of showing what she could do.
“I didn’t even know if I would play basketball again to be honest,” Czinano said. “I talked with my mom a lot about it. (We) tried to figure out if it was smart, or if I would do more damage than good.”
Ultimately, Czinano and her mother opted to give it a go. While Czinano endured countless physical therapy sessions in order to get back, it was hard for her to not be on the court doing what she loves.
“That was so hard,” Czinano said about dealing with it all at that age. “I just felt like none of my friends have ever gone through anything like that. It was hard to find somebody to relate that to. It was so hard. I had to quit volleyball. I had to join swimming for rehab purposes. It was just a lot of extra work that at that age, it was hard. You’re a freshman and just getting into high school. It was a whole game-changer.”
Along with dealing with the pains and challenges of rehab, Czinano had come to realize she would have to start all over and get back to basics to work her way back to the varsity team.
“It was really hard because in the eighth grade, I went from sitting varsity to having to go all the way back,” Czinano said. “It’s like a chain. You have to go from C-squad, to JV, to varsity. It was getting to varsity, and then having to go all the way back down to C-squad. It was hard. I’d go to physical therapy, practice, physical therapy. At physical therapy, I’d have miniscule weights and lift them with my leg. It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Then I’d go home and just start the whole day over and over again. It was (a lot of) hospital visits, and it was challenging.”
“We brought her up as an eighth-grader, and she really progressed along the way,” Watertown-Mayer coach John Rosholt said. “It’s an emotional thing to come up as an eighth-grader. She got through that year, and then had the accident. When she got through all of her therapy, she ended up starting all over again. She felt like she just started completely over. It was a long process, and it was just one of those things she just really had to work through.”
While being sidelined and not being able to be out on the court with her friends and teammates was hard enough, there were several times when Czinano found herself thinking if she would ever really get back to where she was before the accident.
“I remember I got on crutches and tried to go around the bed and I got light-headed,” Czinano said. “I had to sit back down, and I was like, wow, I don’t think I’ll ever do anything normally. It just kind of put it in perspective. I took for granted what I could do before. Now, I’m so lucky that I’m not in that position anymore. It was challenging.”
Flash forward to today, and you would never know Czinano’s past struggles. Whether you see her on the court dominating inside the paint, or smiling and laughing with teammates, there’s no doubt that she’s thankful she got back on the court and proved to herself she could overcome the adversity that kept her from doing what she loves. As much as a physical comeback it’s been for Czinano, she’s also developed mental toughness on the way that will lead her in her life past the game of basketball.
“That was my biggest physical bounce back,” Czinano said. “Rosholt, even from the beginning, has always taught us to be mentally tough just as well. I remember in eighth grade I would be getting chewed out at practice and wonder, what is going on. I don’t think I’m doing that bad. I would just go home and be devastated. Now looking back on that, it was all for the bigger schemes of things. Now, if somebody yells at me in the stands, it just goes right over the head. I think he’s helped prepare me for the rest of my life with the mental toughness. That experience, bouncing back from anything physical, I know I can do it now.”
That physical and mental toughness that Czinano exerted to overcome her setbacks has helped her post an impressive high school career. Not only did she help lead the Royals to their first state tournament appearance since 2010 last year in basketball, she’s also played in state volleyball, and competed at the state track and field meet.
“I still don’t realize how big that is,” Czinano said. “People come up to you and congratulate you for going to state in three different sports. Sometimes I’ll just brush it off and be like, I’m sure other people have done that. It definitely does mean a lot though, considering there was a point in my life where I was laying in a field with my bones coming out of my wrist and my leg. Looking back at it now, It’s kind of crazy that I went through that at 15, and I am where I am at now. It’s really mind boggling. It’s super cool to have come back from that and have the scars to prove it.”
Last month, Czinano made her dream a reality as she officially signed with the University of Iowa, bringing her journey full circle.
As child, she was just a kid at a birtthday party at The Barn, where her goal ultimately began. Come next season, she’ll get the opportunity to step back onto thae court and face off against the Gophers on that very same floor where the dream that couldn’t be shattered planted its roots.
“Ever since I was little,” Czinano said about making her dream of playing college basketball a reality. “It’s always been in the back of all our minds. I have a single mom, so, I mean, money has always been kind of hard. This scholarship definitely helps. Now, I’ll play at The Barn against the (University of Minnesota). It’s still crazy to me that I’ll be doing that.”
While the Hawkeyes await the arrival of Czinano next season, she still has one more season left in a Royals uniform. It’s her last go around for her high school career, so Czinano is making sure to make this one as memorable and as fun as she can, which is something she promised she would do after overcoming her tragic accident.
“This year, I think I’m trying to have more fun with it,” Czinano said. “We have all these younger girls, and I’m playing with my sister now. I’m trying to make them have fun, while also playing well. That should be our team goal. I think everybody plays better when you’re having fun. We want to have fun and do really well. Everybody is super fun to be around. The younger kids, my sister, the seniors, I’ve been with them my whole life.”
When Czinano’s career as a Royal does come to an end, there’s no doubt that she will have left her mark at Watertown-Mayer. A state tournament appearance and a 1,000-point scorer is a good start, but it’s her personality, strength, and heart she has to overcome whatever comes her way that will be remembered.
“It always seems like she has a positive outlook,” Rosholt said. “Anybody who has a positive outlook on life, they’re going to get through. You know there’s going to be setbacks. One of the things about sports and athletics is that you have to suffer through these setbacks. You have to learn to deal with a loss. You learn to deal with an injury. You learn to deal with those kind of setbacks. That’s the beauty of athletics. She’s got a positive outlook and knows how to persevere. In life after basketball, whenever that would be, I think she’ll be able to stand on her own two feet. That’s the goal.”
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter. @Kovar_HJSports