The old Carissima Cutrona is back, finally.
She's not the first women's soccer player to suffer, rehabilitate and recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but anyone who's dealt with the severe knee injury knows the patience required to mount the comeback, both physically and mentally.
That was the mountain that the University at Buffalo striker has had to climb after suffering the dreaded tear late in her senior year at Williamsville South (2013), where she produced a school-record 161 goals, earned first-team All-Western New York honors four times and was named an All-American twice.
After a medical redshirt year at Colgate University, Cutrona chose to come home and play for the Bulls, roughly five miles from where she played high-school ball.
Although she showed glimpses of the quickness and brilliance on the ball that set her apart in high school, her first campaign with the Bulls, in 2015, was uneven. Cutrona was forced to play a new position - on the wing instead of up front, as UB senior Kassidy Kidd was so productive down the stretch that she became head coach Shawn Burke's preferred option to complement physical forward Celina Carrero.
Cutrona had too much potential to leave out of the lineup entirely, but her propensity to dribble at defenders was more risky in the midfield, and tracking back is a different beast.
"That knee injury was something that was so significant to my life - I was out for over a year, really, and I think coming in last season, my first real season back, it took me a while to get my feet under me and get that confidence back," Cutrona said after the Bulls knocked off local rival St. Bonaventure, 3-1, earlier this season.
Kidd's graduation left a hole at striker, and Cutrona seized the opportunity with a white-hot spring that's carried through the summer.
"Toward the end of last year and through the spring, I just had the opportunity to get my confidence back and feel like the player I was before the knee injury," Cutrona said. "Coming into this season, my knee doesn't even cross my mind anymore, and I think getting over that hurdle in and of itself was really good."
The change is noticeable, too. Cutrona looks fearless, taking defenders on relentlessly, planting and twisting and cutting so sharply that defenders find themselves reacting instead of anticipating. Her finishing - a focal point of the spring season - is back, as Cutrona has potted five of the Bulls' seven goals through six non-conference games.
In addition to the natural recovery from the knee injury, Burke points to Cutrona's adjustment to his system, which is far from the direct, play-in-behind style of high school soccer.
"What we ask of our forwards is very different than what they're used to," Burke admitted.
The Bulls break down defenses through combination play in the final third, eventually freeing an attacker to take a player on in isolation or creating space for a service from the wing.
Cutrona's patience and willingness to go through grueling rehab should pay dividends for local soccer fans, as the UB striker is on track to dazzle for years to come.
UB WOMEN'S SOCCER: Early-season look
2015 record: 11-7-3, lost to Western Michigan in Mid-American Conference semifinals
2016 record so far: 2-2-2
Best result (tie): 2-0 loss to West Virginia, 3-1 win over Navy
Head coach: Shawn Burke, third season
Who's gone: Jackie Hall, Kristin Markiewicz and Kassidy Kidd were three starters who graduated. Outstanding defender Brianna Shingary surprisingly transferred to Pittsburgh. Inspirational reserve keeper McKenzie White completed her college career as well.
Who's new: Freshman defenders Adrianna VanCuyck (No. 2) and Gurjeena Jandu (No. 5) have started immediately in the back four, while classmates Kara Daly (No. 11, from Hamburg) and Carley Zoccali (No. 16) are both in Burke's early-season midfield rotation.
Position battle royale: The quest to seize starting goalkeeping duties is fierce, as head coach Shawn Burke says he has two No. 1 keepers. Junior Laura Dougall is the incumbent, and she's started the last three matches, but senior Cassie Betancourt boasts a 1-0-1 record and made seven stops in the win over St. Bonaventure. Expect the seesaw for playing time to continue.
Unheralded star: With the graduations of center backs Jackie Hall and Kristin Markiewicz, fullback Angel Hart (No. 4) has shifted inside for her senior season to organize a defense with three new starters.
"It's a tall task for her, and we hold her to a high standard, but with all our success, Angel has been probably the most underrated player on this team," Burke said. "That's why we know she can handle this, but it's tough because there's going to be a lot of bumps and bruises along the way with such a young back line, and all of them, except for Gurjeena [Jandu], are playing a position they've never played before."
"Angel knows what we want and what we're looking for," the head coach added, "and she's relaying the message, and I think she's been a fantastic mentor to all three of them."
BN Soccer likes: Julia Benati (No. 6). The left winger might not get the attention that Cutrona has so far this year, but the Canadian sophomore is a play-maker supreme with finishing ability to boot. Benati uses her positional width wisely but isn't afraid to drift inside and combine, either.
UB might struggle if...: Although Hart is proving adept as a center back, conference play will test her and the three new starters in the back four. Once the offense peaks - which hasn't happened yet - the Bulls might not be cooked if they have to chase a game, but I'm sure it's a situation Burke would like to avoid.
Moira Petrie (No. 13) and Andrea Niper (No. 24) are solid ball-winners in the middle of the park and can generally keep possession, but their collective lack of pace could be problematic if the opponent boasts a quick, penetrating No. 8 or No. 10.
Big matches: The Bulls host Canisius on Sept. 9, leading off our "5 home college matches to watch this week," then travel to Syracuse for a road game on Sept. 15. An Oct. 14 trip to Western Michigan, who ended the Bulls' MAC title hopes last year, looms as a massive conference game. Here's their full schedule.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who does not have horns, at firstname.lastname@example.org