For most student athletes, the ultimate dream is to go out on top during their senior season by helping the team bring home a state Championship title. For Salpointe Catholic’s Francesca Pieroni, it was almost a reality, until a gruesome lower body injury brought a sudden end to her season right at the start of playoffs.
Pieroni is a senior on Salpointe’s beach volleyball team who had high expectations for the final stretch of her high school career, but in an instant, all of those dreams were shattered. She was at indoor club volleyball practice on April 18 when she sustained both a fibula fracture and a Maisonneuve’s fracture while running through a routine serve receive drill.
Just a few days later, Pierioni found herself going under the knife to get her leg surgically repaired in hopes of being able to one day make a full recovery.
“Dr. Domingo Cheleuitte is Frankie’s surgeon,” Pierioni’s mother Kristin Gerber said. “He’s from Tucson Orthopaedic Institute. He told me Frankie’s leg bones are so solid that his drill was smoking during surgery.”
While the surgery was a success for her leg, it could only do so much to help her when it comes to healing, as there’s no remedy for a broken heart. Being forced to sit on the sidelines and watch, Pierioni has become her team’s number one supporter.
“You know, Frankie might have had surgery, but she was there the next day sitting there in pain wrapped up in this cast saying, ‘Come on, you guys,’ and giving us encouragement.”
“Frankie did a great job of supporting us from the sidelines,” junior Megan Muehlebach said. “It’s obviously so hard for her, having to finish her senior year like that, but she did a great job of helping us with support and keeping great energy.”
While being stuck on crutches has been a challenge for her, the team has rallied around her to show their unwavering support for her and to let her know she’s still part of the squad.
The injury caused a lot of mental stress for Pierioni. Letting her wall down, Pierioni discussed some of her deepest feelings when it came to wrapping up the season while she was sidelined.
As a true teammate, one of her biggest fears was impacting the rest of the season for Muehlebach, her pairs partner. Muehlebach and Pierioni were both set to make a run at the Beach Volleyball Pairs State Championship, but with Pierioni’s injury, Muehlebach is no longer able to compete with a new partner.
“My first thoughts weren’t even about my leg, they were about my partner Megan,” Pieroni said. “I know we had to compete in the quarters a day later so I was just thinking, ‘What did I do?’ Affecting her as much as this is affecting me, I was really worried about her and my part on this team.”
Despite having every single D-II coach rule in favor of Muehlebach being able to play with a new partner, the AIA ruled the Lancers cannot replace Pierioni even though it was due to a season-ending injury.
“Frankie feels responsible for Megan not being able to play in the Pairs tournament,” Gerber said.
Leading up to her injury, Pierioni and Muehlebach had only one loss, coming at the CatBox Invitational. Prior to that, Pierioni had two consecutive undefeated seasons with her former partner Sophia Hernandez.
She also had fears of letting her team down as they were on the hunt for their third consecutive State Championship. If it came down to the final flight of girls, Pierioni would feel guilty knowing she wasn’t able to be there for her team. She also was worried she would be left out of the celebration if they won.
Fortunately for Pierioni, her team breezed by the competition and she had no problems celebrating with her team at the end.
“It was the best feeling in the whole world,” Pieroni said about being included in the dog pile. “I’ve done it three other times but that was by far the best dog pile I’ve ever been in because of all the love on this team and everyone who’s supported me.”
While it wasn’t the way Pierioni wanted to end her high school career, there’s still a lot for her to look back on joyously as has been an integral part of the team’s success during her time there. Pierioni has two other state championship rings from 2021 and 2022 for volleyball and has helped Moore-Martin and her teammates put Tucson beach volleyball on the map as a program.
“We called her the professional, because every day she just brought it,” Moore-Martin said. “She did a really good job of just staying professional all year long even when she was struggling with her day at school, she showed up and did her best to just be the best leader she can be.”
She’s also earned a full-ride scholarship to play indoor volleyball at the University of Alaska – Anchorage next year. One of the toughest things she’s had to do to date was call her future coaches and tell them about her injury.
“I called [my coach] last week and told her about my injury and she was nothing but positive,” Pieroni said. “She said we’re just gonna get up there and rehab you back to health and give you all the love you can get.”
Still, while it is tough for her at the moment, there’s more magic she can look forward to bringing to the court when she makes the move to Anchorage next year to start the next chapter of her journey.
“I’m looking forward to all of the positivity that I already know is ahead of me,” Pieroni said. “I know a lot of people on the team and the coach there is amazing.”
Pierioni can always reflect back on her time at Salpointe with pride, knowing she helped build the program and mold it into what they’ve become today.
“I’m just the most excited about all the strong women that are here,” Pieroni said. “All these women can hold their own, and when I was a freshman, that wasn’t the case, so I’m just so glad I’m leaving a team who’s going to take state next year and they’re just going to be amazing even without all the seniors.”
Set to graduate in just a few weeks with a 3.94 GPA and multiple inductions into the Salpointe hall of fame, Pierioni will leave behind a legacy for the Lancers, as well as some big shoes to fill on the court next year when she’s gone.
“She’s just a baller,” Muehlebach said. “She’s so positive and she’s like, the best partner you could ask for. Everyday we are so grateful to get to play with each other.”
“Overall, she’s just such an inspiring player,” Rylen Bourguet said. “She brings everything to the table… She’s a player you can definitely learn from on and off the court. She’s a super great teammate.”