It was a moment Hannah Cardenas has been awaiting eagerly for 11 months.
On Sept. 4 of last year, Cardenas awoke groggy and in pain from reconstructive surgery on her left knee. A year earlier Cardenas was regarded as one of the top young defenders in the Pac-12 Conference, yet as she regained consciousness from her surgical slumber, Cardenas still was coming to grips with the reality her second season with the Colorado soccer team would be spent on the sideline.
On Tuesday the day finally arrived that Cardenas has been eyeing so patiently. The Buffaloes went through their first official practice of the 2019 preseason with Cardenas ensconced in her familiar role in the middle of the CU defense. After her injury setback and a long offseason that included a return to form during the Buffs’ three-game exhibition trip through France earlier this summer, the native of Placentia, Calif., is perhaps even more eager than her teammates for the Buffs’ season-opener on Aug. 22 at home against Drake.
“In all honesty, I’ve been waiting for this since the day I woke up from surgery,” Cardenas said. “I’ve been mentally and physically trying to get myself prepared for this day since the day I woke up. I do think I have a little bit of rust to shake off, but definitely this week is pivotal for me, because this is when I’m trying to get out of my brace and wean out of it. I feel 100 percent, but mentally I have to keep telling myself that every day because at this point it’s do or die. I have to prove myself all over again.”
As a true freshman in 2017, Cardenas immediately stepped into a starting spot as a central defender and helped the Buffs’ defense set program records for goals-against average (0.61) and shutouts (14). Cardenas played in the first three games last season before suffering a torn left ACL in practice and her absence, combined with an injury to Erin Greening that cost the 2018 senior eight games, forced head coach Danny Sanchez to employ a defensive rotation heavy on rookies.
That group acquitted itself well, with the team’s final goals-against average of 0.91 ranking as the seventh-best in CU soccer history. However, a team-wide struggle down the stretch in which the Buffs were outscored 11-1 during a season-closing four-game losing streak prevented CU from continuing a run of four NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons.
Cardenas, who said she had not suffered an injury worse than a mild ankle sprain in her career, could only watch as the season fell apart in a hurry.
“That was one of the hardest years of my life because I’d never gone through an injury like that,” said Cardenas, who received a redshirt last year and still has three years of eligibility remaining. “That was the hard part — just accepting what happened to me. It happened, you can’t go back and fix it, and you have to move on. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do every single day.”
Last year proved to be somewhat of an anomaly of Sanchez’s tenure in that the Buffs’ offense — which set team records for goals (47) and assists (52) even with the late four-game drought — outpaced the defense. However, four of the Buffs’ top seven all-time marks in season goals-against average occurred during Sanchez’s first seven seasons at CU. With Cardenas resuming her spot in the middle of the CU defense alongside senior Kelsey Aaknes and 2018 defensive rookies like Sophia Weiner and Jesse Loren, the 2019 Buffs expect to return to a defense-first approach that sparked those four NCAA tourney appearances in five seasons.
“We all saw (Cardenas) had a fantastic freshman season and she was off to a great start in her sophomore year,” Sanchez said. “One thing we were looking for, and she’s growing into it, is leadership and having a voice. She’s was a professional in her approach to her treatment and her training.
“We lost that bit of experience. We had a good stretch there, but as it got later in Pac-12 play and injuries started to build a little bit, we started getting a little stretched in our depth. Having a player like her back is like picking up an all-conference level player that already was in-house.”