Continued Setbacks Not Enough to Keep Cardenas Down
BOULDER — Hannah Cardenas began her freshman season in the Black & Gold in 2017. Six years later and it's the 2022 season and she's still wearing 'Colorado' across her chest at Prentup Field.
Affectionately dubbed "Grandma," by her teammates Cardenas is one of the longest-tenured Buffs across CU's 15 sports.
"Everyone likes to make jokes and be like, 'Oh you've been here for 10 years,'" Cardenas joked. "A lot of people think I know everything because I've been here for so long. I get 'Grandma' every once in a while. That's not a fun one."
Cardenas' story isn't so much that she has been in Boulder for more than half of head coach Danny Sanchez's 11-year tenure, but it's what she's had to overcome. Four knee surgeries to be specific.
"Three ACLs, two of them with meniscus fixes. The third one was an osteotomy with ACL and then one surgery was just a meniscus repair," Cardenas rattled off like a shopping list.
The 2017 season saw Cardenas' career shine bright with promise. She started all 22 matches as a freshman and was second on the team with 1,948 minutes played. The defender helped CU to a school record 14 shutouts as the Buffs advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Cardenas opened the first three games of 2018, just as she finished the previous season. Three matches. Three shutouts. But then her season came to a halt, watching the remainder of the year from the sidelines.
"The first one [injury] was probably the worst one I ever had," Cardenas recalled. "The initial shock of having to go through something you've never gone through before is always the worst thing. It always feels like 'oh, that's the worst thing you'll ever experience.' Emotionally that hit me hard. I never had a huge injury or surgery until that point."
She was able to get a redshirt for the 2018 season and was back in full for the 2019 season. Cardenas helped lead the Buffs back to the NCAA Tournament, once again starting every match and leading the team in minutes.
Cardenas suffered a second ACL injury in the spring of 2020 that would have kept her off the field before COVID-19. But when the pandemic forced fall sports into the spring of 2021 it afforded her extra time to rehab and recover.
Cardenas' first appearance of her junior year came after being cleared midway through the postponed season. She returned to action, in a full knee brace, playing 31 minutes against No. 13 UCLA at Prentup Field (Mar. 12, 2021), and completed the weekend with 42 minutes in CU's 3-2 2OT win over No. 14 USC at Kittredge Field (Mar. 15).
The Buffs hit the road the following weekend to head to Salt Lake City to take on the Utes. The precipitation that day was non-stop, and it made for a wet playing surface at Ute Field. Cardenas got her second straight start, but in the 3rd minute, she went to the ground with another injury.
"Nobody really knew, but I had already torn my ACL," Cardenas admitted. "The doctors had basically said I could keep going or stop. I took it as if I could get two more games or I get 10 more games. You never know what will happen.
I remember [at Utah] it was snowing or raining and I remember being a little freaked out, but at the same time it's kind of like you either live in fear or you just do it. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. You can't stop it. I just wanted to play and get as many minutes and enjoy being with the team for as long as I could."
Cardenas would be forced to miss the final seven matches of the season and all of the 2021 season due to the timing of the injury.
"There was a period of about a month where I just couldn't take the constant hit of being told bad news and knowing there was another year of recovery," Cardenas recollected. "Every day was harder than the last day. But for me, I didn't want to look back in 10 years and be upset with myself that I didn't at least try. That's when I let the emotions die out and was able to mentally tough it out a little bit."
Cardenas is now back for a sixth year, thanks to the NCAA's allowance of an extra COVID season. And if there's one thing she's been able to learn from her setbacks, it's just how mentally tough she is.
"I would attribute it [mental toughness] to my grandparents," Cardenas explained. "My grandparents are immigrants and came [to the US] in a very hard time and had to learn how to do everything by themselves. I think that aspect of hard work, determination, and wanting to build a better life for their kids – I think all of that just played into both my parents. That built them into who they are and how my siblings and I are.
"My mom likes to say this quote all of the time. 'Anything worth it in life is only achieved through hard work.' Being able to have the ability to come back every single time [after an injury] with the doctors and everyone supporting me, I think that all just played into it takes hard work to get there. The hard work also takes mental toughness."
That mental toughness has not gone unnoticed by her coaches and teammates.
"To go through three ACLs when you're doing a majority of rehab away from the team by yourself is difficult," Sanchez reiterated. "Mentally, maybe even more than physically. We're really proud of how she's responded and met the challenge.
"I think it also says a lot about her perseverance. What was different about her third surgery was it basically reconstructed her knee. We have great sports medicine people who think outside the box so that she'd be able to play this year, but more importantly, be able to be running around in her 40s and 50s."
Cardenas has five starts under her belt and has played all eight games in the current season. While she might be under more of a microscope than some of her teammates, Cardenas is a proven commodity for Sanchez and the coaching staff.
"We forget that she was basically out for two years," Sanchez commented. "I think she's still working herself into it. We know what she's capable of. She is in her sixth year. She has gone through surgery. She's not going to be 100% every day and we realize that. The work she does with [athletic trainer] Marissa [Holliday] off the field and we manage her minutes are going to be key, but we know what she's capable of."
If anyone understands the concept of uncertainty, it's Cardenas. But she's just fine with taking it one day at a time.
"You never know what is going to happen," Cardenas avowed. "I'm very happy that I'm here at this point. I can only just be happier with every day that goes by and I'm able to do things. I'm hoping that this is my last best year."
Traffic Advisory: The intersection of 30th St. and Colorado Ave., is closed from Sept. 10-23. Prentup Field is now only accessible by turning onto Colorado Ave. from Foothills Parkway.
Game Info: Kickoff vs Denver is set for 1 p.m. MT. Saturday's game will be streamed on CUBuffs.com/WatchSoc