By Rick Assad
Athletes hardly ever think about getting injured, and even if they do, injuries happen to other people.
Julia Duarte had a wildly productive softball career at Burbank High, but fell short of duplicating those incredible feats as a member of the University of Pennsylvania women’s softball team.
For much of the time, Duarte was sidelined because of an assortment of injuries that included two concussions, two herniated discs in her back, a sprained ankle and a sprained UCL [ulnar collateral ligament].
“I think that getting hurt my freshman year was difficult,” said Duarte, a four-year starter with the Bulldogs as a first baseman/third baseman, who was named All-Pacific League first team three times and second team once, was a four-time Scholar-Athlete and Female Athlete of the Year as a senior.
Burbank took the Pacific League title three straight seasons (2013-2015) and made the CIF Southern Section playoffs four times.
“I had never really had to be on the sidelines before and really learned the meaning of being a teammate,” Duarte said.
Duarte, a recent college graduate who earned a bachelor of science degree in Economics with a concentration in Finance from the Wharton Business School, continued: “Although I was injured for the duration of my career and knew that a majority of my role would be from the sidelines, I always tried to pick up my teammates whenever I could whether it be by offering advice, keeping score or helping with drills I could no longer participate in,” she said.
Duarte, who will begin her professional career in September as an investment banking analyst for Cowen & Company in its Healthcare group in New York City, wanted to return to the field.
“I tried to do physical therapy and cortisone shots for my back injury, which was the one that kept me out. I recovered from my concussions after a few months for each one, but the injury never really healed. I was very immobile my freshman year, but every year got a little bit better,” she said. “Softball is a very repetitive sport and I found that I didn’t have the range of motion to field anymore. I tried to just hit [designated hitter] my senior year and although it was still painful, I was able to get through what season we had before COVID-19 sent us home for the first time in my career, as I was unable to play through a complete season my other three seasons.”
Duarte was devastated that the pandemic halted her career. “Sadly, COVID-19 cut our season short and the in-person academic year at Penn was canceled the day that we came back to Philadelphia from our week-long tournament that we had in Orlando, Florida (March 11),” she said. “We had the opportunity to play games in Virginia and Florida before the season was canceled, but we did not get to play any Ivy League games.”
Does Duarte ever look back and wonder how it would have gone minus the injuries?
“It is hard to say how I would have done had I not been injured, but I don’t like to ponder that,” she said. “I choose to focus on my experience at Penn as a whole and how I have come out a stronger person because of my experience. I think that my situation was unique and not a lot of people can say that they have gone through what I did, which gives me a different perspective on what it is like to be a Division I athlete.”
Duarte has no second thoughts about her time at Penn.
“Although my softball career didn’t go as intended, I do not have regrets given that the situation was out of my control,” she said. “I think that my position really taught me perseverance and the meaning of being a teammate. I think I would have had more regrets if I would have quit or stopped trying to play.”
So Duarte’s best times on the softball field occurred in high school. “I would say that just given my situation at Penn, I do cherish my moments that I had on the field at Burbank,” she said. “We were a really good and a scrappy team and had a level of determination and intensity that I miss.”
Duarte pointed at the city rivalry. “I don’t think I have been in such an intense game since Burbank-Burroughs,” she said. “Although I miss softball and remember specific games and plays, I think that Burbank also gave me some of my best friends. I am still close to both Lily Winn and Caitlyn Brooks, who were my best friends and teammates until they left for college after my junior year. But I also think that my experiences at Penn were very valuable – I learned a lot about myself through the process and wouldn’t have traded my experience.”
One game between host Burbank and Burroughs during Duarte’s sophomore year is etched in stone.
“We rallied hard in that game, coming back from a few run deficit to win in a walk-off by Lily [Winn] in extra innings,” Duarte said. “The team had such incredible energy and determination to win that game. I think that the Burbank-Burroughs games in general were my favorite just because of the hype that surrounded the game.”
Mike Delaney, the former Burbank softball coach, knew that he had a special person and player in Duarte.
“Julia was an excellent role model both in the classroom and on the field,” he said. “Julia was a player you could count on to show up, work hard and compete daily. She was confident in her ability and was one of a handful of players that I’ve coached that really understood the mental approach to the game and could make game adjustments to the situations she was facing.”
Delaney added: “She won a couple of big games for us by making adjustments and trusting her talent,” he said.
It’s not as though Duarte doesn’t have any fond memories of her time at Penn.
“Although I wasn’t in the lineup for the game, I think that our last game of this season against ranked, the University of Florida, was one of the most memorable of my career,” she said. “We went in as the underdogs, but really held our own and only lost 3-1, although we had bases loaded a few times and had the opportunities to take that game from them.”
Duarte continued: “I think that was proof of how strong our team was this year and how much chemistry we had,” she noted. “I wish that we would have gotten the opportunity to show that in Ivy League play, but our season was canceled less than a week from our league opener against Yale.”
The Quakers failed to make the NCAA tournament during Duarte’s tenure there.
Still, Duarte cherishes her time as an athlete. “I think that down the line I won’t remember the specific plays or scores of the games as much as I remember being with my friends and teammates both on and off the field,” she said. “I know that I have made life-long friends at Burbank and Penn. I think that being a part of a team is something really special and that all the hard work and grueling practices makes a special bond.”