Fallston's Ali Vignola has always been a physically and mentally strong athlete even though, at 5 feet 6, she often runs up against girls 6-0 or taller.
Small for a forward, she won't back down from anyone. Her 19.4 scoring average leads the Harford County girls basketball league and ranks third in the Baltimore metro area.
Vignola's philosophy is simple: "Run through a brick wall, whatever it takes."
In the past year, however, her physical and mental toughness have been shaken to the core.
In April, she was coming home from a Dundalk flea market with her best friend and her then-boyfriend when an oncoming car crossed the center line of U.S. 24 near Interstate 95 and hit their car.
Her best friend, Mike Napoli, was driving and took the brunt of the impact. He died at the scene. Vignola and Matt LeMaire, who were riding in the back seat, ended up at Shock Trauma with severe injuries, and both have recovered.
Vignola suffered a lacerated spleen, internal bleeding, a bruised lung, a broken left arm and strained ligaments in a knee. She also has endured lingering pain in one of her hips.
Her road to recovery has been a long one.
Physically, Vignola is nearly 100 percent now with the exception of occasional soreness in her hip. Her basketball statistics prove she's back in the form that enabled her to score 26 points against eventual Class 3A state finalist Milford Mill in last year's North region final loss.
Mentally? That's another story.
Tears still come when she talks about Napoli. She experiences flashbacks to the scene and to his funeral.
For a while, she saw a counselor but said that didn't help much. Her best therapy, she said, has been the support of her parents, brother, extended family, teammates and friends.
She also dedicated her soccer and basketball seasons to Napoli, taking a quick look skyward to connect with him during the national anthem.
Before the accident, Vignola also played softball, but she has decided not to return to the diamond this spring.
"Mike loved that sport, and he used to come to all my games," said Vignola, fighting back tears. "I just don't think I could play and look over and not see him sitting there."
Otherwise, sports has been a saving grace for Vignola, 18.
"It helped to get my mind off everything that happened in the past few months -- not to mention that you can take out your frustration on the court or on the field," she said.
"Soccer is one of my favorite sports, and it really felt good to get back out there."
Soccer season wasn't easy, coming four months after the accident. She was still out of shape and experienced a lot of pain in her hip. But she had come a long way through physical therapy after being too weak to walk when she got home from the hospital.
"Physically, it was difficult for her because she's always been able to go at it," said Cougars soccer and basketball coach Nancy Ferguson. "I think she wanted to go all out, but she wasn't physically able. And when she was physically able, she was hesitant, not sure how her body was going to react."
But Vignola persevered. She used sports as an outlet, channeling her pain into performance.
"She really needed to get back on the field," said her father Jerry Vignola, former athletic director at Loyola College.
"She's had to deal with some things adults would have trouble dealing with. She's very strong-willed, and as a result of the trials in her life here recently, she hasn't lost it, but they've made her refocus on how she handles it. She got through it better than I thought she would."
Pub Date: 2/27/00