The Comeback Kid: Gianna Marmo battles back from injury woes to lead Shawnee

After missing her first two years following ACL surgeries, Shawnee senior Gianna Marmo has emerged as one of the area’s top players. She's scored 32 goals in 30 games in the last two seasons.

Shawnee High School senior Gianna Marmo suffered ACL injuries in each of her first two high school seasons, but, in a testament to her perseverance, has emerged as one of South Jersey’s best players since returning to the field. (MARK ZIMMARO/The Sun)

Fifteen months ago, Gianna Marmo was more than a little nervous to take the field for a scrimmage at West Essex High School in North Caldwell.

Marmo hadn’t played in a field hockey game in years. She has suffered two ACL injuries requiring surgery before high school – one on each knee – and had to sit out her first two seasons at Shawnee. 

But her first game back was even more spooky because it was the place her older sister, Tina, had suffered one of her three ACL tears. Tina Marmo had to give up the sport because of the injuries.

“I was very scared and nervous – so were my mom and my coach (Renee Toliver),” Marmo recalled. “But (Toliver) told me, ‘Don’t let it get in your head.” And once I got out there, I played my game. …  It was really scary going into that first game, but then after that, I was all good.”

If South Jersey awarded a Comeback Player of the Year, Marmo would have been a slam dunk winner last year. She scored 16 goals (second on the team) in 19 games.

Now a senior, Marmo hasn’t slowed down. She headed into the Renegades postseason with 16 goals and seven assists in 11 games in 2020.

“Gianna is a force to be reckoned with,” Toliver said of Marmo, who hopes to pursue broadcast journalism in college. “Her motivation level is unlike any athlete I’ve seen; she truly plays every game, practice and drill all out, never giving up. I think the few years she was sidelined gave her a fresh perspective and it has genuinely changed our program.”

Before Shawnee opened up the Southwest D sectional playoff bracket this afternoon with sister-school rival Lenape, Marmo spoke to South Jersey Sports Weekly about her journey back to good health.

South Jersey Sports Weekly: What number do you wear?

Gianna Marmo: I wear 14. When we got our numbers Toliver pulled me aside and said, ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to wear 14.’ And I was already thinking that because it was my mom’s number and my sister’s. I wanted to play for them.

But I was worried about the (practice jersey). My sister tore her one ACL in that. But we got new jerseys. So I was like, “Ok, this is a fresh start.” I definitely am very superstitious and felt more comfortable that way.

SJSW: Your path hasn’t been easy, but I’m sure you’ve also gained a lot of mental toughness and maturity. If you could go back and do it all over again, would you change anything? Maybe that’s a silly question.

Marmo: I wish I could go back and re-do it all. I don’t get the opportunity now to play in college. My junior year I did really good and then the (COVID-19) happened and I was unable to do any clinics or reach out to any schools. 

I wish I could go back to have the experience of all four years of high school and also get the chance to play in college. But I definitely think I’m mentally more mature than a lot of people because I went through those injuries. Everyday that I’m out there, I’m just happy to be there. It could have been a lot worse. I could have had something else go wrong, so I do feel like I’m lucky that I’m still able to play.

SJSW: Do you have a favorite high school memory?

Marmo: Probably my favorite memory was last year (after) I broke my wrist in the practice (two days) before our Eastern game. (But) I said if it’s not an ACL, I’m going back out.

The doctors put me in a cast but the next day at school I ripped it off with my friends. One of the teachers told my mom, my mom texted me, “What are you doing??” I said, “Mom I can’t play in a hard cast.” So then we went to a (wrist specialist) and they made me a brace to play with in the game. I played in the game, I scored and had an assist. It was such a fun game, we were tied at halftime. Unfortunately we lost (5-3), but we had never come that close to beating Eastern since coach Toliver has been here. 

Shawnee High School senior Gianna Marmo wears No. 14 for both her mom and her sister, who both also played for the Renegades. Her older sister had to give up the sport after three ACL injuries. (MARK ZIMMARO/The Sun).

SJSW: I guess you could see Eastern again in the playoffs this year.

Marmo: We played them in our first game of the season, but we didn’t have a preseason and weren’t playing well … But we’re really connected as a team (now). I love all of my teammates, there’s no drama and we play really well together. I’m excited with whoever we play. I just want to keep going. [Laughs]. Our goal was to beat all of the sister schools, and we did that, and now we’re just going game by game. Everyone is very positive, so that’s a good thing.

SJSW: Let’s give some attention to your teammates. Who is the toughest?

Marmo: I would say Marg Schaefer and Mel Craig. They always seem to be getting hit with balls and toughen through it.

SJSW: How about the funniest?

Marmo: Julia Cavicchio and Tori DiGennaro. They’re funny in their own ways. Julia cracks more jokes and Tori, just her personality is funny.

SJSW: Smartest?

Marmo: Skylar Santucci tries really hard in school. And the same with Marg. 

SJSW: Watch anything good lately, movies or TV?

Marmo: I watched the movie “Clouds” on Disney+. That was really sad. It’s about a boy who has cancer. It’s sad, but it makes you think about how lucky you are, because he’s a senior in high school. A lot of the girls on my team watched it and it made us really glad to have all of these things even though our graduation and Disney trip could be affected, at least we can make it to all of that. 

SJSW: Who is your favorite teacher at Shawnee?

Marmo: Probably Mr. (Zach) Baer, in U.S. History I and U.S. History II. 

SJSW: If you could add any player in South Jersey to your team, who would you add?

Marmo: Probably (Seneca’s) Cassidy Strittmatter. I grew up with her when I was little. We always are pumping each other up before games. She’s a captain, too, so we’re always giving each other pointers. She’s a very good team player and our moms played together, too. So it’d be fun to do that again. 

SJSW: If you had a time machine, where would you go?

Marmo: I don’t know. I’m scared to go forward. I don’t want to screw up with my future. But I don’t know, I’m glad I was able to make a path for myself, even with the injuries and all of the death that has happened. [Editor’s note: Marmo lost her father in grade school and both of her grandfathers have passed away, too]. I think I’ve learned a lot from it. I guess I’d say I’d go to graduation just to see where I’m going. 

(MARK ZIMMARO/The Sun).