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Plattsburgh State's Melissa Luciano (11) slides in safely during a game against St. Lawrence last month. Luciano has suffered through injuries this season, but her experience and leadership has been invaluable to the Cardinals' success

PLATTSBURGH -- Melissa Luciano made it to practice Tuesday. She lasted five minutes. The Plattsburgh State catcher sprained her ankle and left for a room that's become awfully familiar.

"I was there for five minutes, sprained it and walked right back to the training room," she said. "I cannot catch a break."

It's been that kind of season for the fifth-year senior. After fighting knee injuries for weeks, she finally got her knee healthy, only to sprain her ankle last weekend and then sprain it again Tuesday.

But then, Luciano started the school year teaching in Manhattan, thinking her softball career was over. So while the season hasn't exactly gone the way she envisioned, she's relishing her chance to play one more year -- and be part of Plattsburgh State's first appearance in the NCAA Division III Softball Championship.

The Cardinals (35-12) meet Washington (Mo.) Friday evening in Salem, Va. on the opening day of the national championship tournament.

Statistically, Luciano's season has not been up to her usual standards. But the Cardinals have still felt her influence.

"I don't think you can measure her impact on this particular group with some of the youth and inexperience we have," Plattsburgh State coach Sean Cotter said. "She's been more like probably a mother to them and maybe an assistant coach to me."

Luciano, who's from the New York City area, had an extra year of eligibility left because a shoulder injury sidelined her as a freshman. During the first semester of this year, she was doing her student-teaching in Manhattan, preparing to graduate and fielding job offers. She hesitated to return for a fifth season because she knew there was a large freshman class and few seniors, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to deal with the growing pains of a young team.

But conversations with some of the seniors from last year convinced her to enroll in grad school and return to the team.

"My ultimate decision was just based on the fact that I had one more year left," Luciano said. "And I'd speak to the seniors, and they would love to come back one more year. And that was really it. They would tell me, If I had one more year, I would.' "

Once she made her decision, it was an adjustment.

"It was hard because I was in real-world mode last semester," Luciano said. "I was teaching and living in the city, so coming back was a bit difficult. Getting back into the college mode was a bit challenging."

Injuries have slowed her for much of the season. She's had to sit out some games and has been limited offensively -- she said she's probably attempted just one bunt this season because she's not able to run full speed.

"I'm hitting .230 I think, but you know what, it's OK," Luciano said. "As long as we keep winning, I'll take that .230 batting average."

Luciano was fourth on the team last season with a .349 average and second with 53 hits, and she drove in 26 runs. She received All-Conference and All-Region recognition. And in 2005, she led the Cardinals in almost every offensive category. This season, she has 24 hits and 16 RBI.

"The numbers aren't where she'd probably like them to be," Cotter said. "If she had a similar year to last year, she could have been maybe our all-time hits leader, but she's still in the top two or three in most offensive categories. And she's getting an opportunity to hopefully hear her name announced at the (Division III) World Series, and I know that's something that she has always dreamed about."

Luciano doesn't plan to let her latest injury spoil that dream.

"I refuse to sit out just because of it," she said. "I've played through lots of pain because this is my last year to play. This is what I came back for."

clewis@pressrepublican.com.

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