From the minute Jaylene Rivera rounded third and made the turn for home in a Lyndhurst High School softball game in 2019, she knew something was very wrong with
“I felt it pop,” said Rivera, a freshman at the time. “I went down. It didn’t hurt at first, but I then couldn’t put any pressure on it. I thought at first it was just a little sprain.”
But a few days after the injury, the swelling didn’t subside and Rivera went for a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test that provided the three initials that every single athlete dreads hearing – ACL.
“It was scary,” Rivera said. “Hearing those words, I just thought everything was over. I knew I was a freshman and I had a lot of time.”
Lyndhurst head softball coach Sara Fusco was an assistant at the time of Rivera’s unfortunate injury.
“It was sad,” Fusco said. “She had so much potential. You always get a little concerned when you see something like that.”
Rivera’s torn anterior cruciate ligament required reconstructive surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. She suffered the injury in May, but didn’t have the surgery until early June.
“I knew that there were a lot of athletes who made the comeback, but it was still scary,” Rivera said. “It was comforting to see the pictures of all the athletes on the wall.”
While she professes to not being a big football fan coming from a family of New York Jets fans, Rivera saw all of the famous New York Giants players that adorn the walls of the Hospital for Special Surgery.
“I just knew I had to get back on the field,” Rivera said. “I need to get back and I need to play again.”
Rivera said that she began physical therapy as soon as possible after the surgery at Excel Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy in East Rutherford.
“My brother (Jose, a former football and baseball player at St. Joseph’s Regional in Montvale) went there, so I figured it was a good place to go,” Rivera said.
Thus began the comeback of Jaylene Rivera.
“I started in (therapy) in June and got cleared in December,” Rivera said.
Imagine that. Rivera came back with clearance from her surgeons from a surgery that usually takes 12-to-14 months to recover fully. Rivera did it in six months.
“I worked really hard to come back,” Rivera said. “I wanted to come back.”
“She was determined to get right back,” Fusco said.
So Rivera did her due diligence to make a full recovery of the knee. She was all set to play again in the 2020 season, but then, disaster struck twice. The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic struck, putting an end to all sports worldwide.
“It was horrible,” Rivera said.
Rivera was able to get back on the field later that summer, playing summer and fall softball with the Lady Ravens of Wycoff.
“At least I had that,” Rivera said. “I was fortunate to have that summer.”
Unlike most of the athletes in a small NJSIAA Group II school like Lyndhurst, Rivera is softball strictly and only softball.
“I had a few of the track coaches approach me to come out because they knew I could run,” Rivera said. “I had played so many sports as a kid, soccer, basketball, but softball was the only one that stuck with me. I think it’s the only one that I felt natural with, so I stuck with it.”
When the 2021 season approached, Rivera was a little anxious.
“I was so incredibly excited,” Rivera said. “I anticipated it for so long. I was just so happy to be on the field again with my friends and teammates. I knew from the beginning of the season that we had so much talent. We had been working together for so long.”
Fusco knew that Rivera’s comeback was inspiring. So much so that Fusco named Rivera and her fellow classmate and teammate Ella Todzuman as captains, even though both are only juniors.
“I was so happy to be picked as a captain,” Rivera said. “I was happy that Coach Fusco had so much trust in me. It’s usually reserved for seniors, but she had so much faith in me and Ella. I knew I had to set a good example for the rest of them. When I’m in the dugout, I’m always cheering, but talking in the field makes me a little anxious.”
“She’s not as vocal as others, but she leads by example,” Fusco said. “She works hard and plays hard, every single at-bat. That’s why she’s a captain. She always does the right thing.”
Lately, the junior third baseman has been doing more than just the right thing. She’s been tearing the cover off the softball.
Rivera had three hits, including a double and a home run, and drove in five runs in a win over Harrison, then followed it up with two hits, namely a double and a homer, and three RBI in a win over New Milford. She also drew three walks and scored two runs against Bergen Charter, extending the Golden Bears’ current win streak to 10 straight.
For her efforts, Rivera has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
And that honor marks a first here at the Observer. In the 20-plus years of choosing athletes for the weekly feature here during the scholastic sports seasons, there had never been two athletes from the same team to be selected in consecutive weeks.
Rivera joins her friend and teammate Todzuman as back-to-back recipients of the honor. Todzuman, the Golden Bears’ pitcher, earned the honor last week after pitching a perfect game among her achievements. Is there any wonder why the Golden Bears are rolling along with 10 straight wins?
Rivera, who is batting .475 with five homers and 19 RBI, is seeing the ball very well these days.
“The ball looks like beach ball right now,” Rivera said. “I’m so happy I’m doing so well. It looks so huge coming in. In the beginning of the season, I might have been a little nervous, but after a few games, I just said, ‘Play your heart out and have fun.’ My mentality is so much better now.”
Fusco always had faith.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Fusco said. “She’s such a great kid. She’s super smart and has a ton of AP (advanced placement) classes. She’s just a well rounded individual. I’m super excited about the way she’s playing.”
Rivera is also a slick fielding third baseman, so she is well rounded.
Fusco was asked what it meant to have two straight Athlete of the Weeks.
“Watch out,” Fusco laughed. “I’m very proud of my girls. They’re awesome.”
Just like Todzuman, Rivera has hopes of playing softball in college.
“It is a goal for me,” Rivera said. “Between my injury and COVID, it got messed up a little bit. But I hope to find a good school.”
And life is a lot better these days.
“That’s 100 percent better,” Rivera said.
Lyndhurst junior third baseman Jaylene Rivera is The Observer Athlete of the Week this week, the first time ever that the honor went to teammates in consecutive weeks, joining teammate Ella Todzuman, who earned the honor last week. Photo by Jim Hague
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”