Senior setter Cecilia Aragao has returned from a torn ACL to lead VCU this season.

Senior setter Cecilia Aragao has returned from a torn ACL to lead VCU this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There is little evidence left of the torn ACL that derailed VCU Volleyball setter Cecilia Aragao’s junior season, other than the big, bulky, black knee brace, that is.

While the brace is hard to miss, Aragao doesn’t look much different from the player that was midway through one of the best seasons by a VCU setter before it came undone in an instant. That’s good news for VCU, which needs Aragao’s smooth playmaking skills more than ever this season.

Aragao, a senior and four-year starter from Recife, Brazil has reestablished herself as one of the best setters in the Atlantic 10 and perhaps the East Coast with her play during the first half of this season.

It’s not just Aragao’s ability to direct Rogers’ quick-set offense that places her among the best at her position. It’s that Aragao can impact nearly every facet of the match. While she’s compiled more than 3,500 assists during her career, Aragao is the first VCU setter to record more than 300 blocks. She’s also booked more than 300 kills and 800 digs.

Behind Aragao, one of just two seniors on this year’s squad, the Rams (10-9, 3-2 A-10) have won eight of 10 matches and find themselves in a position to contend for an A-10 title. But it wasn’t long ago that she wondered if she’d be able to command an offense again.

On Oct. 2, 2013, Aragao suffered her season-ending ACL tear in a match against Hampton. While she was giving chase to a loose ball, Aragao rolled her ankle and then her knee. In 12 years of competitive volleyball, she’d says she’d never suffered a major injury. She knew immediately this time was different.

“The pain was so strong, I didn’t have anything to compare it to,” she recalled. “My knee was so swollen, and the girls on the team were trying to tell me it was probably something else. But I was like, ‘no, something happened.’”

A few days later, she received the bad news. Her 2013 season, one which was shaping up as her best in a VCU uniform, was over.

“I was in the coaches’ office [when I found out]. I started crying. The other girls started crying,” she said.

In Aragao’s absence, the Rams performed admirably with freshman Kaitlyn LaMantia setting. Led by AVCA All-East Region star Romana Kriskova, VCU finished 26-8 and reached the A-10 Championship Match.

For Aragao, however, surgery and an arduous rehabilitation began. During the following months, Aragao worried she was falling behind.

“There were other girls [rehabbing] from the women’s soccer team and they were running and jumping and trying to bend my knee,” Aragao said. “When you do surgery they give you the expected schedule…I was getting so frustrated. [Eventually], my thought was, I’m not going to pay attention to this schedule.”

Despite her body’s initial slow response, Aragao was cleared to play a couple weeks before VCU began its preseason camp.

“Everybody just said to just keep doing your exercises, keep working,” she says. “That’s one thing that I do now that I’ve had the surgery. Keep your mind healthy. Always positive.”

A tough early schedule that included seven NCAA Tournament teams from 2013 in the first nine matches threw Aragao and the Rams into the fire. But in the weeks since, they’ve emerged a dangerous team, one with Aragao directing the offense. Through 19 matches, Aragao is averaging 9.61 assists per set. VCU is scoring on nearly 41 percent of her sets, which is on par with her career average.

“I’m starting to feel normal now,” she says. “I felt like the first few days of preseason there were balls I wasn’t getting to, if I had to step back I felt slow, like I’m not as fast as I used to be. I feel like the more you play the more comfortable I feel, so today I feel good to go.”

Aragao’s health is a boon for the freshman-packed VCU roster. Eight of the 17 players on this year’s team are in their first season of collegiate volleyball. Gone is Kriskova’s thunderous right-hand stroke, replaced by a number of athletic and talented, but ultimately less experienced, players. Over time, Aragao has begun to form a connection with teammates like outside hitter Jessica Young, an uber-athletic Arizonian who can squat 305 pounds.

“I had my doubts. I had my questions. I had so many freshmen playing with me. When you have returners, you know how they play,” Aragao admits. “We’re doing good. Since day one, the freshmen and the returners have connected really well.”

For Aragao, it’s back to business as usual.