Latrobe’s Emma Blair, Southmoreland’s Olivia Cernuto rebounding from ACL tears

Saturday, May 6, 2023 | 5:56 PM

They were supposed to be two of the top girls basketball players in the WPIAL last season — locks for top-10 all-star picks and clear-cut player of the year candidates in Westmoreland County.

But ACL injuries forced Latrobe’s Emma Blair and Southmoreland’s Olivia Cernuto to the sidelines and cost them their senior season.

Soon, though, they will emerge from hiding. Both girls, who would have been four-year starters, are on the road to recovery as their college careers await.

Blair was only four games into last season when she pulled up lame. The first-quarter injury — torn ACL in her left knee — was as bad as it looked, and the 6-foot-2 Blair, the 2021-22 Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year, missed the next 18 regular-season games and the Wildcats’ 68-61 loss to Trinity in the WPIAL Class 5A first round.

The throwback post player with more than 700 points and 700 rebounds is a Division I South Carolina Upstate commit.

“My surgeon’s goal is to have me be back for my first season at Upstate this winter,” Blair said, “but we have been taking it one day at a time. My physical therapist has been saying that I’ve been making great progress so far. I’ve been going to physical therapy three times a week, and it’s always exciting when I am able to do new exercises or movements.”

After Cernuto’s junior season, Southmoreland never got her back at point guard. She injured her right knee five games into last soccer season and did not return.

Now six months into her recovery from a fully torn ACL and meniscus, Cernuto is grinding through therapy and she aims to make an impact in Division II basketball at Gannon.

“I think the most challenging part of the process is working up the motivation to do the exercises when it’s painful, and you don’t feel like you are getting any better and you think you are stuck,” Cernuto said. “I think having a chance to play at the next level and to be able to come back after being out for so long is a big motivation.”

The prognosis for Blair’s return was initially 8 to 10 months, although the rehab process for ACL tears is much more expeditious than years ago.

“It’s hard to tell exactly right now when I’ll be back fully,” Blair said. “But my doctors and physical therapist have said they think I’m on pace and doing really well. In the middle of June, I go down to Upstate to continue my rehab, and I think that is really going to help me.”

Blair remained on the bench for every game and attended practices after her injury, greeting the team in starting lineups and offering words of encouragement in huddles.

Something else Blair and Cernuto have in common is the injuries also robbed them of their spring sport.

Blair was a key softball player and would have added depth to an already potent batting order.

Cernuto, who scored 875 career points and 100 career goals, was one of the top track and field jumpers in the WPIAL. She is a former district champion in the triple jump.

Blair helps the softball team by keeping the scorebook for some games.

Cernuto, who attended every practice and basketball game after her injury, still roots for her Scotties teammates as they run, jump and throw at track meets.

“As I recovered more, I got to shoot foul shots and do some passing with them as well,” she said. “In track, I was a little less involved but I would go up and help run the pits during the high school and middle school meets.”

Long rehab days and inactivity are things both girls have dealt with, but they have not dealt with it alone.

“Being with the (Upstate) team and coaches for their support and having their facilities and trainers is something that I think will really help me to come back even stronger than before,” Blair said. “I think the people who have been by side throughout my whole recovery so far have kept me motivated. They are always encouraging me and helping me at any time to stay positive and celebrate the little milestones along the way. My friends, teammates, coaches and especially my family have been so important for me to have during my recovery.

“I also keep the end goal in mind to help me stay motivated and focused on what I need to do now because I can’t wait for the moment that I am finally able to get back out on the court.”

Cernuto said there is a lesson to be learned through the recovery process, which has given her a different perspective.

She said there is truth to the old saying, “You never know when your last game is going to be.”

“If anything, when I come back and am at full-go to play again, I will really take that to heart and work even harder and not take it for granted,” Cernuto said. “Being out and watching the games and practices, without getting to physically be out there, helps you learn and see new aspects of the game that you won’t necessarily be able to point out when you’re in the game.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at

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