#FocusDisruption is a collaboration of all the media outlets within Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media. Our goal is to report stories that highlight the effects or disruption of the last two years and the solutions that have come out of it. All aspects of day-to-day life have been altered but we will be primarily focusing on how mental health, education and the workplace have changed.
A few days after their contest against Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) on March 9, 2020, senior defender Kaitlin Zazzaro and the Montclair State women’s lacrosse team was enjoying a beach day at Clearwater, Florida. They were eager to take their minds off a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds of the contest.
However, the team was starting to hear news of Division I games being postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, the Red Hawks couldn’t fathom that their season would be over in a matter of days.
Eventually, Division III sports would meet the same fate. The New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) and NCAA announced the cancellation of all collegiate competitions just days after returning from Florida.
“It was more frustrating for me because you go through a whole month of preseason [just to only] play four games,” Zazzaro said. “You come off a one-point loss to RIT, your wheels are turning and you’re ready to go [for the next game] and then for that to happen, it’s frustrating.”
However, little did the team know that it would be one of the few moments they would share with Zazzaro in a long time — nearly two years, to be exact.
In one of the hardest decisions of her lacrosse career, Zazzaro decided to walk away from the game in September 2020, just days before fall practices started in preparation for the 2021 season.
She was struggling to cope with the fact that her life had drastically changed so quickly. No lacrosse. Virtual classes. Little to no interaction with her teammates in person. Even worse, her uncle passed away from COVID-19 in April, someone who had been in and out of the hospital for several years. The pandemic had taken away so much for her that mental health had to become a priority.
“I was stressed about situations I really had no control over,” Zazzaro said. “And when you compare that to mental health, in order for my situation to get better, I had to take a step away from lacrosse. If I go into [next season] not [feeling] 100%, it’s not going to benefit anyone. Not myself or my teammates.”
Before her decision, Zazzaro’s game had evolved throughout the 2019 offseason and early part of the 2020 season. In a year, her confidence was at an all-time high, transforming from a timid and hesitant player as a freshman to an aggressive playmaker for the Red Hawks who disrupted opposing offenses with her gritty play.
Her improvement during fall ball and the preseason earned her a spot on the starting lineup as a defender.
“It’s almost like having more confidence in myself from freshman to sophomore year made me more secure in making big plays,” Zazzaro said. “When you play defense, you can’t just be scared because someone is going to walk all over you. You have to make sure you’re making the move before the [opposing player] is.”
In regard to last season, on paper, it doesn’t appear that Zazzaro’s departure greatly impacted the Red Hawks. The Red Hawks were the No. 1 defense in the NJAC by most metrics, from goals allowed per game (7.96) to save percentage (.604%).
Overall, the Red Hawks had one of the greatest seasons in program history as they had an undefeated regular season with their only setback being a blowout loss against The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in the NJAC Championship game.
However, senior midfielder Amber Gonzalez, a longtime teammate of Zazzaro since their days at Mount Olive High School (NJ), believes she is crucial to the team both on and off the field.
“Last season, we didn’t have [Zazzaro] and a few others, but her presence was a very big loss for us since she not only was a great defender but also was there to pick you up when you were feeling down. The defense helps to build the team up, and [Zazzaro] was one of those players.”
Missing out on a historic season is something Zazzaro wishes she could’ve experienced with her teammates.
“I had gone to a couple of games last season, and it was major FOMO [fear of missing out] for me,” Zazzaro said. “Their successful season wasn’t what killed me, but it was more like I couldn’t be there with them. Not even on the sidelines. You miss out on the small moments — the bus rides, locker room talks [and] just being around your teammates every day.”
However, the year-long hiatus gave Zazzaro time to improve her mental health and other personal challenges she experienced that season. During her time off, Zazzaro took on a full-time job at Walgreens, where she worked on the front lines of the pandemic administrating COVID-19 tests and vaccines.
While the job came with an enormous amount of stress and responsibility, it actually helped her cope with everything that was going on in her life.
“Taking on a leadership position and gaining responsibilities helped me better myself and balance everything out in my life,” Zazzaro said. “Instead of being stuck in my own [thoughts] all the time, I put that focus on helping others who needed it the most.”
While she missed her teammates and playing the sport she loved for 13 years, coming back wasn’t always in the cards. She was conflicted — focus on her personal struggles for another year, officially close the door on lacrosse, or return for one last “dance”?
While she didn’t fully regret taking the year off, she knew lacrosse was something she wasn’t quite ready to let go of yet.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2021 season, Zazzaro was back on the team.
Since then, Zazzaro has become a valuable piece for the Red Hawks. In 13 games this season, she’s collected 25 ground balls and caused 24 turnovers, which are all career-highs.
With those stats, you’d think the transition back for Zazzaro was fairly smooth, but she will be the first person to tell you how challenging it’s been to return to playing at the level she’s accustomed to.
During the fall, Zazzaro described her first practice back in two years as a “slap in the face,” particularly when it came to regaining her endurance. On top of that, she contracted COVID-19 just weeks before their season opener, causing her to miss crucial practice time.
In the Red Hawks’ 2022 season-opener against Haverford College, Zazzaro’s first game back in nearly two years, it felt like an uphill battle from the opening whistle.
“There were definitely some nerves in that first game considering I didn’t play for [nearly two years],” Zazzaro said. “I think because I was so worried about making a mistake, I wasn’t playing to my full potential. I was [thinking] to myself, ‘When are you going to snap out of it or you’re going to let this happen the whole game?’ And then in the middle of the game, I was getting my nerves out. I felt less out of place.”
Since then, Zazzaro has been anything but out of place. She had one of the best games of her career against Moravian College on March 18, collecting seven ground balls and causing five turnovers.
“My mindset going into a game is so much different than before,” Zazzaro said. “Instead of focusing on the [big picture], I’m taking a step back and thinking about completing the small things in order to achieve the bigger goals.”
While her success on the field is crucial to her, Zazzaro has ensured her mental health remains her top priority. Thankfully, her relationships with her current and former teammates have allowed her to stay on track.
“I was having a rough day at practice one day and [senior attacker] Kaitlyn Arcede pulled me aside and checked up on me,” Zazzaro said. “To have someone be like, ‘Hey come talk about it,’ really helps. I realized something I struggle with is talking about my personal issues, and I’m very lucky and thankful to have a team that is able to take me aside and check up on me.”