Senior guard Maria Alvarez walked into the Muma Basketball Center with an extra bounce in her step on Tuesday morning.
Alvarez was preparing to start her individual workout before the Bulls’ 25th team practice. She said she’s in good spirits with the season starting in just five days.
It’s the first time she has started a season healthy in two years. The process of getting to this point has been 19 months in the making.
“I finally got my body back…I’m just excited to get back out there finally,” she said.
Alvarez tore her left ACL during the Bulls’ 71-38 blowout win against former conference rival Houston in the 2021-22 regular-season finale on March 9.
She injured the same knee during her freshman year in the American Athletic Conference opener against Cincinnati on Jan. 5, 2020.
She watched from the sidelines as her team cruised through the AAC tournament before falling to then-rival UCF in the championship game 55-43.
The Bulls went on to qualify for the 2022 NCAA tournament but would lose to Miami in the first round 78-66.
It was tough for Alvarez to not be on the court with her teammates during their postseason run, but she still maintained an optimistic outlook on the situation.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but I was prepared to say the least,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez underwent knee surgery on April 1. While she had rehabilitated this injury before, it didn’t negate the challenges she would face in her journey to recovery.
Alvarez spent the next four months post-surgery relearning how to walk. She would later progress to knee-strengthening exercises.
The challenges of the rehabilitation process weren’t just physical for Alvarez.
She said that maintaining her confidence post-injury was one of the most important parts of her process. She relied on mental health staff to talk through the adversity she faced.
“You got to have confidence in yourself. You got to have faith in yourself. And if you don’t have [enough of] that, it’s tough to get back to,” she said.
One of the main support systems Alvarez leaned on was her parents – Carlos Alvarez and Alba Montes.
Her parents moved from Pereira, Colombia to Miami-Bal Harbour, Florida when she was three.
Alvarez was raised to take pride in being a Colombian while fitting into American culture. She said they kept up with Colombian traditions and made dishes such as Bandeja Paisa that reminded her of where she came from.
Her perspective allows her to connect with her younger teammates who travel across the world and away from their families.
Alvarez spent the first month of the 2022-23 season on the sidelines. She used the time to observe how the team played to implement into her game when she returned.
She also built relationships with the younger international players on the Bulls’ roster to help them adjust to collegiate life in the U.S.
Her teammates call her “Grandma,” a nickname from her varsity days at Miami Day Prep.
As she became an upperclassman at USF she played a leadership role as she did back then.
She planned a trip for her and the Bulls’ freshmen class to watch USF play UF in September 2022. They rented an Airbnb and watched movies together.
Alvarez is a self-described “social butterfly” who intentionally tries to involve everyone to build a family-like atmosphere among her teammates.
“They kind of have to rely on you as that second sister, that second family overall,” Alvarez said. “So being able to learn just from them, of their culture, their country, their families…it’s really cool when you get to bond over that.”
Bulls coach Jose Fernandez has known Alvarez since she was in middle school. He said the way she’s handled challenges and takes younger players under her wing reflects the culture of the program.
“She’s grown up a lot in a short amount of time and she’s gonna have a great senior year to finish off her career,” he said during AAC media day.
Alvarez participated in team practices by early October 2022. By late November, she had a return date set for December.
She returned to the court on December 14, 2022, in a home game against Marshall. She remembered the anticipation she felt entering the game with eight minutes remaining in the second quarter.
“You definitely get the jitters at first,” Alvarez said. “But once you see that ball go through the rim, that’s what every shooter wants, that little bit of confidence for yourself. Because once you see it going in, I think it’s lights out the rest of the game.”
Alvarez made her first shot less than a minute after she entered the game. She finished the game with nine points and made three out of her five three-point attempts.
Her first game was a major step for her but she still spent the rest of the season adjusting to playing again. She averaged 2.5 points in 10.5 minutes per game last year.
Alvarez said this past summer was the best of her career. She spent the offseason refining her skillset and rehabilitating her knee. That same summer, she graduated with her Bachelor’s in Marketing.
The 2023-24 season will be Alvarez’s last year donning the green and gold for the Bulls.
She said she is excited to help the Bulls win more titles and make the NCAA tournament again.
Fernandez said Alvarez will play a pivotal role in the team’s success because of her composure in high-pressure situations.
“She’s a shotmaker, she wants the ball in her hands. Some guys shy away from that, but she enjoys the bright lights and the tough moments.”
But, more importantly, she said she wants to represent the team that has stuck beside her during the adversity she faced in her career.
“I stuck it out with the Bulls for five years, because it just felt like family,” Alvarez said.