AUGUSTA — It was one of the most convincing wins of the season for the Cony football team, one in which the Rams played so well on both sides of the ball that Monday was guaranteed to be a pleasant day in the film room.

But the players weren’t smiling, and neither was their coach. B.L. Lippert had seen two of his best players, Mike Wozniak and Jake Mills were done for the season, out with torn ACLs suffered within minutes of each other, and a 32-8 win over Mt. Blue last Sept. 22 didn’t seem to mean all that much at the time.

“It’s devastating, because they put in so much time,” Lippert said, “and it just seems so unfair that they got hurt. The only solace we could take was that they were both juniors, and they get a senior year.”

And they’ve been thriving in it. Wozniak and Mills have returned from their injuries to resume their roles as lynchpins of arguably the Pine Tree Conference’s best defense, helping to lead the Rams to a 4-1 record and status as a surefire Class B North contender.

Mills leads the conference with six sacks, while Wozniak is one of the team’s top tacklers at outside linebacker.

“They’re both critical. … They both do so much for us,” Lippert said. “(Jake’s) explosive off the edge. … And Mike’s probably our emotional leader defensively.”

They were in those same roles last year when they had their seasons taken from them mere plays apart on that late September evening. It was late in the second quarter when Wozniak saw the Mt. Blue ballcarrier turn upfield and planted his leg to give chase. He’s not sure if it was when he put his foot in the ground or finished the tackle that he heard the pop.

“It just hurts very, very, very bad, and you just know, (it’s) not good,” Wozniak said. “I instantly knew there was something wrong. … I was unbelievably mad. I couldn’t believe my leg couldn’t take it, I was just mad that it happened.”

Misfortune struck again during an interception to end the half, when Mills was hit while blocking on the Cony return.

“My foot stuck in the ground and I remember my knee bending the wrong way and I felt a pop,” he said. “The pain fades after about 10 seconds because all the nerve endings, they’re gone, but I couldn’t move it at all. It’s more scary than anything, because it’s just, something’s wrong.”

Cony hadn’t had an ACL injury in four years. Lippert was surprised by the first diagnosis. He was stunned by the second.

“The doctor said ‘I think it’s an ACL,’ and I said ‘Are you serious?’ ” he said. “We were devastated. … It really affected not only them, our team, but … their families were all affected. It was hard, it was difficult.”

For Wozniak, there was never a change to his resolve to return to the field.

“I had the thought, as soon as I get the surgery, I’m coming back for football,” Wozniak said. “There was no thought of not playing.”

And for Mills?

“For about 15 seconds, yeah,” he said, smiling. “I thought ‘I’m out for the year, and what if I tear it again?’ But after that 15 seconds, I realized there was no point in being scared of a torn ligament if you’re not going to use it.”

The road back wasn’t easy. Mills had his surgery before the season was over, and Wozniak had his three weeks later. The most basic movements became a learning process.

“First, coming out of it, you’ve got to get back your walking patterns,” Wozniak said. “They call it your ‘gait patterns,’ how you walk. You’ve got to get back fundamentals.

“What really caught me off guard was how many times a day I’ll get up and just jog or run to a spot, then not being able to. … You’ll catch yourself and say ‘Can’t. Got to walk there.’ ”

Even months into the rehab, when the joint began feeling strong again, the struggles continued.

“The most difficult part of rehab is feeling 100 percent and ready to go, and not being able to go,” Mills said. “They won’t let you play for what seems like forever. … I know I wasn’t 100 percent. But since you’re at that point and you were at zero, you feel fantastic.”

Lippert, who checked in with his players frequently, said they took opposite approaches to the rehab process.

“Michael’s much more emotional, he really struggled last year when it happened,” he said. “And Jake just kind of rolls with the punches. ‘Yep, I did this, I’m going to have my surgery, I’m going to rehab, I’ll be ready in nine months.’

But they both did exactly what they were asked by their doctors. … The week after they tear their ACLs, they’re both in the weight room lifting upper body.”

That determination helped Mills return to the lacrosse team midway through the spring, and Wozniak return by mid-summer 7-on-7s. As the season progressed, Lippert could see that the injuries weren’t slowing his players.

“(Jake) made a few plays (in the preseason) where I looked at Brandon Terrill, our defensive coordinator, and said ‘All right, he’s back,’ ” he said. “I thought (Mike) didn’t trust his knee to kind of let it loose when he ran. We’ve seen that kind of go away, we’ve seen him improve as far as that’s concerned in the last two or three weeks.”

Both Mills and Wozniak say they’re 100 percent, and that the knee is little more than an afterthought.

“I was never scared of its performance,” Wozniak said. “It hasn’t affected me at all.”

Mills, however, said his injury has left at least one lasting impression.

“To an extent, it has lingered into this year,” he said. “Not the physical aspect, but it’s kind of like a slap in the face. Wake up, this is your last chance to do something.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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