Nicoletti’s journey: Two years, two knee surgeries but now a chance to play

Izabela Nicoletti heard about the expectations. But she had expectations of herself, too. She was a McDonald’s All-American, North Carolina’s player of the year. Nicoletti had a plan to make an impact as a freshman.

“I was so excited to come in and be able to try to play right away and just be able to help Florida State as a program,” Nicoletti said. “So it was definitely pretty hard. It was a tough two years.”

Nicoletti hadn’t been on Florida State’s campus very long. Considered a point guard of the future but also one who could be impactful in year 1, her season was immediately halted. In July 2018, she suffered a season-ending right knee injury during individual drills. Nicoletti spent 11 months rehabilitating the knee and was back on the court in May 2019.

A month later, she was playing in a pickup game and suffered a season-ending left knee injury. Nicoletti was heartbroken but also determined. She would rehabilitate a second time. She would get in the best shape of her life. She would return to the court.

“Looking back, it was probably the two best years I’ve ever had,” Nicoletti said. “I just grew so much. Not basketball, of course, but just as a person and as a teammate. So right now I’m 100 percent, practicing every day and trying to get better every day. And mentally I’m better than ever. So I’m just so excited to be able to be on the court finally and help everybody.”

That day is coming soon, even if it was delayed by the cancellation of Wednesday’s game at Florida A&M. On Sunday, when FSU opens against Florida, she will step on the court for the first time in a college basketball game.

The comeback, parts I and II

A member of the Brazilian national team as a teen, Nicoletti came to the U.S. and lit up the court. Nicoletti averaged 19.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.9 steals at Neuse Baptist Christian School in Raleigh, N.C. 

Nicoletti had success at every step of her career. She never needed surgery.

“It was catastrophic to her mentally,” FSU strength and conditioning coach Dave Plettl said. “There was a lot of tears and a lot of sadness.”

Injuries and surgeries are the reality of sports. Plettl and FSU’s training staff are all too familiar with the process but as much as the job titles include words like strength, conditioning and training there is encouragement, patience and psychology.

There was surgery, recovery and rehab. Even though Nicoletti had a “what next?” mindset to rehab and was always looking to push herself to get back to the court. Plettl thinks she “overtrained and just didn’t allow herself to rest.” But Nicoletti was also tempted to eat and added weight during the rehab process.

The second injury hit, this time on the left knee. Plettl and the training staff knew they would have to help Nicoletti through the process again but also had to work with FSU’s nutritionists, taking a look at every aspect of her daily life as she made a second comeback.

From cardio to running in the sand pits to swimming and spinning, Nicoletti did it all. But she also listened closer to the staff and was cautious about how to rest and recover and when to push.

From the time of her first knee surgery to now, Plettl estimates Nicoletti has dropped 40 pounds. Nicoletti also opted to go vegan during the rehab, and after having some stomach pains it was later discovered that she was allergic to a favorite food: avocados. 

Another obstacle. But Nicoletti is cautious about what she eats. And after two long calendar years, the basketball season is here.

Still in many ways a freshman

Nicoletti is beginning her third year on campus yet views herself as a freshman in basketball from an experience standpoint. While she was limited in how much she could do on the court, Nicoletti tried to absorb as much of the offensive and defensive principles that coaches would instruct each day.

“The coaching staff did an amazing job of like making sure I was always engaged with the team through practice,” Nicoletti said.

Nicoletti’s role is likely one where she will come off the bench, which should help minimize the wear and tear on her knees. Three minutes here and there are far different from logging a starter’s minutes over the course of a game.

It’s clear to interim head coach Brooke Wyckoff that Nicoletti is vocal and can take on a leadership role. But her lack of game experience is part of the learning curve, too.

“She is a kid that’s never been afraid to speak up, to call people out,” Wyckoff said. “It’s been great to have her be able to do that now that she’s actually playing. She gets to see how it feels and how difficult it is when you’re in the mix. She’s a talented kid. 

“But she is a freshman. She really is just learning. And making the typical newcomer mistakes but at the same time you never have to question her work ethic and her drive.”

One of the luxuries to the FSU roster is the depth, talent and experience at guard. The Seminoles could start a three-guard lineup with graduate transfer Tiana England, Bianca Jackson and Morgan Jones. England was St. John’s starting point guard for three years before transferring, Jackson brings experience from South Carolina and Jones has started 38 games for FSU, too. 

The great aspect for Nicoletti is she won’t have the pressure of playing minutes and producing. But now she gets her chance to go out and play.

“I just cannot wait until I finally put that Florida State jersey on and I’m finally able to play in a game,” Nicoletti said. “And I think the thing I’m most excited for is my first home game (Sunday against Florida). I think that’s going to be very special.”