East Islip football coach Sal J. Ciampi saw it this summer, long before Leo Lopez suited up for his long-awaited junior season. At that point, the unknowns were plentiful. Would there even be a football season? What would it look like? And how would Lopez, who missed all but four plays of the 2019 campaign with a high ankle sprain, bounce back from a sophomore season on the shelf.
But then, as the coach guided his squad through virtual game planning and scheme installation, it became evident that Lopez wasn’t behind the curve at all. In fact, he was ahead of it.
"He was rattling all this stuff off to us, which showed us mentally, despite the injury and being a young kid, he was able to stay engaged last year and learn all the things that you hope he would have learned by being able to do it physically in practice," Ciampi said. "I think that says a lot about him that he knew that that stuff was important enough to put in the effort to make sure that he learned it."
Last Friday night, Lopez showed that he mastered it, scoring four touchdowns in East Islip’s 55-7 Week I win over Eastport–South Manor. The halfback rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries and returned an interception 46-yards for another score, earning him Newsday Athlete of the Week honors.
Lopez said the interception return, which came on the third play of the game and gave East Islip a 6-0 lead, calmed his nerves about how his ankle would respond to the equivalent of two seasons without action.
"I just dropped back and the quarterback threw it into my hands," Lopez said. "I knew everyone was going to protect me there to bring something good for my first game back … That’s when I showed that I was back to who I am and that’s when I flipped the switch and said ‘I’m back.’
The injury changed Lopez, he said. Simple things like rest and ice suddenly became priorities. Not only did he learn the playbook, but he was diligent about working out, twice a day most of the time.
"Before, I used to go out a lot, not caring about my body," Lopez said. "But now, since I got injured, I stay home a lot, ice up, take ice baths and just lay in bed a lot and do homework."
Lopez, who hasn’t played significant snaps since his freshman year, said he felt more explosive in Week I.
"I felt like I was getting out of my stance quicker, running quicker, and hitting kids harder," Lopez said. "I felt more powerful than my freshman year."
His coach thinks that could only be a sign of things to come.
"The sky's the limit for him, in terms of his ability," Ciampi said. "…He’s going to be one of the most dynamic players on the Island going forward over the next two seasons."