By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Jessica Failace vividly remembers the day that dramatically changed her life.
“We were playing River Dell in the county playoffs (two years ago),” said Failace, the Lyndhurst High School senior. “My knee twisted the wrong way. I heard it pop.”
The results were staggering. Not only did Failace tear the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), but she also damaged her meniscus.
“There was only 1:44 left in the game,” Failace said. “I knew it was bad.”
It also came at an emotional time in Failace’s life. Just eight days prior to the injury, Failace lost her beloved grandfather, Frank Benedetto, Sr.
“It was a hard time for me,” Failace said. “It was absolutely horrible. I had everything I loved to do taken from me.”
However, Failace was determined to get back to the soccer field and to the track (where she competes in the middle distance races).
Failace’s uncle, Frank Benedetto Jr., is a physical therapist who works at Paramus Orthopedic Physical Therapy.
“He took care of me right away,” Failace said. “I was blessed that he helped me. I ended up needing two surgeries. I was non-weight bearing for 66 days. But the day after my last surgery, I started physical therapy. Those were the worst days of my life, but they changed me. Those days made me who I am today. I completely believe that things happen for a reason. It all made me a stronger person.
” Failace worked diligently in her physical therapy in order to make it back to the soccer pitch and back to the track.
“I worked very hard,” Failace said. “I wanted to come back better than ever.”
Fast forward to 2014. Failace entered her senior year with high hopes and expectations.
“I felt as a senior and as a captain, I had to step up for my team,” Failace said.
Last year, Failace played for the Golden Bears, but she was limited in what she could do.
“I doubted myself a little,” said Failace, who played while wearing a bulky brace on her injured knee.
“You could definitely tell that she wasn’t 100%,” said Lyndhurst head girls’ soccer coach Kim Hykey. “She was wearing the brace and she just basically got through the year.”
But when practices began in earnest for the 2014 season, Failace was a different person and player. The bulky brace was gone.
“This year, it’s like, `What injury?’” Hykey said. “Her speed and confidence is back. It’s night and day to what she once was.”
“It upset me that people always came to me and asked me how I was doing,” Failace said. “I wasn’t able to run like I used to. I wanted to become better than I was.”
Failace scored two goals as a freshman, one as a sophomore and two as a junior. But no one could expect the explosion that she has enjoyed this year as a senior.
“She has been playing phenomenally,” Hykey said.
No one could have ever anticipated what Failace could accomplish this season – or for the last two weeks, scoring two or more goals in five straight games.
Failace scored two goals and added an assist against Leonia, had two goals against Queen of Peace, scored two goals and had two assists against Bergen Charter, had the three-goal hat trick against Dwight-Englewood and scored two more against Ridgefield.
For the season, Failace has tallied an astounding 20 goals and added five assists.
For her efforts, Failace has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“I think I have much more confidence this year,” Failace said. “Going through physical therapy has made me stronger and gives me confidence that I can shoot with either leg. I can shoot from all different angles.”
Hykey said she remembers the turning point for her senior captain.
“When I noticed her turning point was in the beginning of the season,” Hykey said, “She wasn’t scoring much, but I noticed that she hustled and played well against Glen Rock. I don’t know if that gave her confidence, but from that point on, she got started and has been amazing. She has been making shots from ridiculous angles. I didn’t know she could do that.
Added Hykey, “She plays the left side (of the midfield) and has developed a left shot. Her left foot has become very good. She’s not afraid to take a shot with her left foot.”
Failace admits that she has fully recovered from the knee injury.
“I feel like I’m better than ever,” Failace said. “I feel less limited than I was. I’m much better without the brace. It feels great to be able to do this. I’m completely recovered.”
The Golden Bears are also enjoying success, with a 17-2 record and a top seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs that begin this week.
“She’s been a surprise, a pleasant surprise,” Hykey said.
Hykey likes the chemistry she has with fellow midfielder Amanda Fulcher. Another team captain, Giana DiTonto, has an incredible 31 assists.
“Amanda has done a great job distributing the ball,” Hykey said. “Jess has been getting open through the defense and making shots.”
Hykey also counts on Failace to be a leader.
“She’s awesome,” Hykey said. “She’s like having another coach on the field. She’s smart and knows what has to be done. She always tries to do the right thing.”
Failace also runs track and holds the school record for the 400-meter run as well as two records with Lyndhurst relay teams.
Failace is also a standout in the classroom. She’s currently ranked No. 2 in the Lyndhurst Class of 2015 with a grade point average of 4.16 and a score of 1810 in the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.
Failace has not made a commitment to college. Because of her experience in the field, she wants to become a physical therapist and will attend an accelerated six-year program in college.
She’s undecided about the school and whether she will play soccer in college. “I might run track and play club soccer,”
Failace said. “I’m not ready to give up playing soccer.” Failace also has a reputation off the field.
“She’s a goofball,” Hykey said. “I will come to my office and find 75 Post-It stickers on my wall that say, ‘Jess is the best.’ I don’t even have to read them to know who’s done it.”
“I just want to leave my mark when I go,” Failace said. “I like having fun. People meet me and they think I’m quiet and shy, but I’m actually quite the opposite.”
So the fun-loving captain is enjoying life once again – and scoring goals at will.
“It all made me a stronger person,” Failace said. “I am absolutely better than ever. I was asked if I wanted to have plastic surgery to hide my scars on my knee. I want them there forever as a reminder of what I’ve been through. They made me who I am.”