UMass men’s soccer’s Danny Belza reflects on his time rehabbing a torn ACL

By Jason Kates

Danny Belza. Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Danny Belza. Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

It’s nothing.

That’s what Massachusetts men’s soccer player Danny Belza was thinking when he twisted his knee in the 85th minute of last year’s 2-1 overtime loss to UNC Asheville on Oct. 30.

The senior even hobbled around the field, playing through the pain and finishing up the last few minutes for the Minutemen.

“When it first happened, I didn’t even think anything of it,” Belza said. “I actually finished out the last five minutes of the game, running around, thankfully not touching the ball. Our trainer Bob (Kuzmeski) thought it was just a slight sprained MCL kind of thing, but nothing too bad.”

But the next morning, Belza knew something was wrong.

“I woke up the next morning and couldn’t walk on it, the pain was unbearable,” he said.

For the next four days, the Louisville, Kentucky native sat around in North Carolina hotels unable to compete in any games, anxiously awaiting the return back to UMass so he could undergo an MRI and get the news that it wasn’t anything too major and he could get back to playing.

The news, however, was what no athlete ever wants to hear.

A couple days after his MRI, Belza’s junior season had come to end, as he was diagnosed with a torn ACL and MCL.

“That was not what I was expecting at all,” he said. “It was pretty devastating.”

Recovery time

While the news was not what Belza hoped for, he embraced a positive outlook moving forward as he began the rehab process.

“Luckily, it fell at a good time I guess you could say, to have that kind of injury,” he said. “There were only three games left in the season and I was able to rehab through the winter and all of spring, so I got a good jumpstart on it.”

He added: “I had a good support system. Primarily since it was around Christmas break I went back home for the break and I had some good people back in Louisville who helped me get jumpstarted on it, and (Kuzmeski) said that the doctors really did a good job giving me a stable knee to move forward so when I came back in the spring I was flying and ready to come back.”

Belza said the period of rehabilitation taught him that he could handle adversity, and even compared the nine-month ordeal to one of the hardest tests he has had to take.

“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done,” he said. “I’m actually trying to go medical school and I took the MCAT over the summer, so I felt that if I could rehab for nine months, not play soccer and watch my team play without me, then I could study for a couple months and work on that.”

The return

On Aug. 15, it was finally time for Belza to get back out on the field.

But it wasn’t until the pregame huddle when it finally hit him.

“I wasn’t even thinking about it at all,” he said. “The assistant coach Mike Mordocco brought the guys in to pump us up and mentioned, ‘You know this is Belza’s first game back in nine months,’ and I was just like, ‘Woah, it is.’”

Sporting a noticeably large knee brace, Belza entered the game in the second half and was swept over with relief.

“I went on and everything felt normal,” he said.” It was a big relief getting that first touch. Wearing a huge brace was a little annoying, but there’s a learning curve and you cope with it.”

A new role

When Devin O’Neill took over as interim head coach last year, Belza started all 14 of the games he appeared in and was a staple in the backline of defense.

But this year, things are a little different.

With first-year coach Minutemen Fran O’Leary opting for a younger backline, Belza found himself on the bench and has appeared in just eight of 11 games for a total of 198 minutes. Like adjusting to wearing the knee brace, he knew he would have to accept that he would be taking on a new role for UMass.

“Busting your knee up is a hard thing to come back from,” Belza said. “I’m not going to beat anyone with blistering pace nowadays with my new knee, but Fran’s a great coach and he’s got a mindset and a game plan. He’s an incredibly smart person and knows that I’m not as fast as I used to be and he can utilize me in different ways.”

As a senior, Belza has had to endure some tough times, including last year with the passing of former longtime UMass coach Sam Koch in the summer before the start of last season.

“As the other seniors can attest to, we’ve had a tumultuous time with three coaches in four years,” he said. “With (Koch’s) passing it’s been tough, but it’s brought us together as a group for sure.”

With his time as a Minuteman winding down, Belza acknowledged that not every moment in Amherst has been disappointing.

“Even without the wins and a lot of success, it’s been a great time.”

Jason Kates can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Jason_Kates.