With the beginning of his senior season around the corner, St. Rita’s Matt Dunleavy made up his mind.
Just six months removed from surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee, the St. Rita outfielder was ready to step away from baseball.
He wasn’t sure his knee could take the wear and tear of a full season.
“I’d been going through rehab and going to physical therapy every day, but I told [Coach John Nee] that I was going to quit,” Dunleavy said. “I wasn’t going to play.”
It was later that day that the gravity of his decision set in.
Maybe he wasn’t quite ready to leave baseball behind.
“I didn’t want to have any regrets for my senior season, so I came back,” Dunleavy said. “My football season was cut short with the injury. Everything panned out. I was able to come back sooner than I thought.”
That decision to return for the Morgan Park resident and St. Cajetan graduate paid huge dividends. St. Rita’s starting left fielder and a fixture at the bottom of the lineup, Dunleavy hit .300 with 23 runs scored overall as the Mustangs finished third in Class 4A.
It was St. Rita’s best state finish since 2014.
“I wanted to have the best senior year I could and finish the year,” Dunleavy said. “It was really fun to play at state. Losing in the semifinals, it didn’t end how we wanted to, but it was a great season.”
Coming off the serious knee injury, the fact that Dunleavy played as much as he did was impressive.
A two-year starter at cornerback on the football team, Dunleavy tore his ACL on Sept. 21 in a 29-13 defeat to Montini in a Chicago Catholic League (CCL)-Blue showdown.
Lining up on special teams on the second-half kickoff, he planted awkwardly while running up the field and lost his momentum, tearing the knee when a Montini player tackled him.
He underwent surgery on Oct. 16.
As he wavered on coming back, Dunleavy couldn’t help but think of his older brother, Tim, who tore a knee ligament four times during his athletic career.
“It’s just a crazy coincidence that it keeps happening,” Dunleavy said. “After the doctor said it was a torn ACL, it was a tough time. It didn’t settle in until a few days later.”
Dunleavy worked out throughout the winter offseason, all the while the decision still up in the air. When he finally told Nee his decision, the St. Rita baseball coach had an idea.
Nee texted Dunleavy to ask if his senior outfielder could return his jersey the next day. Another player needed his No.-9 jersey.
However, in reality, there was no player.
“It wasn’t true,” Nee said with a laugh. “I wanted to see where he was at. He asked if we could talk again. He wanted to help the team however he could. I told him we’d love to have him.”
Recovery from ACL surgery typically takes six months to a year. Dunleavy made his return just under the six-month mark, slowly easing back into games. He started off playing three innings in a game, then half a game and finally full games.
By the time St. Rita traveled to Las Vegas in mid-April, Dunleavy was back and playing all seven innings.
Nee was happy to have his gutsy left fielder back in the fold.
“You need guys with all these tools, but you also need the ‘Dunners’ to go with them,” Nee said. “You’ve got guys like [Oakland A’s draftee Jalen Greer], and then you’ve got these grinders around them. They become so valuable. They start to wear off on those other guys.”
St. Rita ultimately won the CCL-Blue title, its first since 2014.
In a key game against rival St. Laurence, Dunleavy delivered a huge outfield assist to gun down a Viking runner in the top of the seventh. St. Rita knocked in the game-winning run in the bottom half of the frame.
“My favorite part of the year was going to Vegas and winning the Blue,” Dunleavy said. “I wasn’t 100 percent. Running the bases, it felt like my knee might pop some times. It felt great to be out there, though, playing with my best friends.”
Dunleavy will attend Parkland Community College in Champaign, and he plans to transfer to the University of Illinois.