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After broken neck, St. John the Baptist's Allie Ponzio returns to basketball stardom

St. John the Baptist basketball player Allie Ponzio.

St. John the Baptist basketball player Allie Ponzio.   Credit: James Escher

Allie Ponzio , a senior on the St. John the Baptist High School girls basketball team, called it the scariest moment of her life.

“I remember running,” Ponzio said. “I remember saving the ball, and then … I didn’t pass out or anything. Everything just went blank, though. I felt like I was rolling. I was like, ‘What’s going on? I can’t move my body.’ ”

Ponzio, then a freshman, was chasing down a loose ball when she crashed into a wall with such force that she broke the C2 vertebra in her neck and bruised her spinal cord.

“In the hospital, when they said it was a broken neck, it was devastating news,” said her mother, Anne-Marie Ponzio, of Bay Shore. “She couldn’t even move.”

The injury happened Jan. 5, 2016, at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Syosset. She was taken by ambulance to Huntington Hospital, where her mother said she spent mere hours before she was transferred to Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens.

Her first surgery was performed on Jan. 18 by Dr. Richard C.E. Anderson at Columbia Presbyterian, who likened the injury to one from “a high-speed motor vehicle accident type … or a fall from a significant height.

“It’s unusual to have that significant of a fracture, dislocation and spinal cord injury from playing basketball,” Anderson said.

One of Ponzio’s first questions for the doctor was when she would be able to play basketball again. That is what motivated her throughout the grueling road back to the court.

“Right from the beginning, I just needed to play basketball, and I knew that if I didn’t play basketball, I wouldn’t be myself,” she said. “So, I knew that I needed to work hard to get back to where I was.”

Now 18, Ponzio is back to playing the game she loves full-steam after making her return to the team as a sophomore, and the traumatic injury barely crosses her mind.

“She’s the first one on the floor, first one diving for a loose ball,” St. John the Baptist coach Kate Gordon said. “She broke her neck. Think of the enormity of that. She’s the hustler. These kids are trying to keep up with her. And that’s an amazing leadership quality that she brings to our team.”

Ponzio, a guard, is the only senior on her 6-7 Cougars team, so she focuses on trying to set an example for younger teammates.

In a game last month, Ponzio instinctively planted her feet and braced for impact as a hard-charging opponent was driving to the basket. Ponzio crashed to the floor, and the referee called a charging foul on her opponent. Ponzio popped back to her feet, high-fived a teammate and headed back down the court.

“Just the fact that she took that offensive foul there, I was like, ‘Woah!’ She’s amazing,” her mother said. “I have to say, I’ve never been prouder.”

Ponzio finished that game with a season-high 18 points, and her coach said she rarely leaves the court. She is averaging 6.3 points per game.

“Her goal is to stay on that floor,” she said. “She doesn’t want to come off.

“Her being the only senior, and her story, and what she does just by her pure and sheer fight is something that you can’t mimic,” Gordon said. “I’m so proud of her. I can’t even talk about it without crying.”

Ponzio said she doesn’t want to be known as the girl who broke her neck. She would rather be known for her hard-nosed style of play.

“The beginning of this year I was like, ‘This is my senior year. I’m going to play my heart out.’ “

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