After ACL surgeries derailed her basketball dreams, Gabrielle Finora focused on a new passion

At the end of the first act of the musical “Into the Woods,” the central characters — Cinderella, Jack (of the beanstalk), Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood — get exactly what they each desire. This, they believe, will bring them the happily-ever-after they’re all seeking.

The second act reveals just how wrong they are.

When Mattituck High School senior Gabrielle Finora takes the stage as Cinderella in her school’s production of the play starting Feb. 27, it will mark a second act of sorts in her own life. For most of her later-elementary school, middle school and high school years, Gabrielle’s main passion was basketball. But ACL tears in both knees in the span of four years took their toll, and by the end of her junior year on varsity, Gabrielle faced a tough decision: Try to grind out one more year playing through the fear of another injury, or direct her energies elsewhere.

Gabrielle ultimately chose the latter, leaning into a talent she’d always had for singing by trying out for the school musical. To her surprise, she was chosen for one of the lead roles — Cinderella — and now says that whatever hesitation she may have had about forgoing her senior basketball season to join the school play has long since disappeared.

Arriving at that decision wasn’t easy, however. Gabrielle’s love for basketball had deep roots, starting when she was little, watching her two older brothers play on youth and school teams and shooting baskets for hours on the hoop outside their home.

“I really just wanted to play with them,” she said, smiling. “I wanted to be just like them.”

Gabrielle was involved in dance as a youngster as well, but said she never cared much for other sports she tried, like soccer or lacrosse.

“I fell in love with [basketball],” she said.

Gabrielle started playing as a fourth-grader, on a CYO team coached by her father, Joe Finora. She continued playing into middle school, before tearing her right ACL as a seventh-grader. The surgery and yearlong recovery period were tough, she said, but she was determined to get back out onto the court, and was relieved when she did a year later.

“I was just so overjoyed that everything worked like it was supposed to,” she said. “It felt like I could breathe again.”

Gabrielle said she was “thrilled” to make the junior varsity team as a freshman. But during a summer league game before her sophomore year, she sprained her left knee. She was told initially that she could return to action soon, and finished out the summer season. But her knee still didn’t feel right, and a doctor’s appointment and subsequent MRI delivered the worst-case scenario news: She had torn her left ACL.

“I remember feeling so heartbroken even when they said I needed to go for an MRI,” she recalled. “I was like, no, this already happened, this shouldn’t happen again.”

During October of her sophomore year, Gabrielle’s doctor told her she needed another surgery.

“My heart sank,” she said. “I wanted to be on varsity so bad; that was my dream.”

Gabrielle, center, celebrates with teammates after defeating Port Jefferson in last year’s county final. (Credit: Daniel De Mato/file)

Gabrielle went through the surgery again, and once again endured the months of physical therapy, which ramped up to two-hour sessions three times a week. A return to basketball after the first surgery wasn’t even a question. This time around, her future in the sport was murkier. Two ACL tears in the same knee bring with them a strong recommendation to stop playing. But with one in each knee, the way forward is trickier. Gabrielle ultimately played her junior year, achieving a longtime dream of making the varsity squad, but it wasn’t what she hoped for.

“Going back my junior year, things just didn’t feel right,” she said. “I think I just lost confidence in my knees, which really affected the way I saw the sport.

“I felt like it was a constant internal battle,” she continued. “I kept saying to myself, you have to go for it, you can’t do this half-hearted. And my brain was telling me, ‘No, you have to protect yourself.’ I developed a fear of being injured.”

Gabrielle ultimately decided not to return for her senior season, but admitted that giving up basketball left a void she wanted to fill. Before long she filled that void, and pointed to what she later realized was a turning point — making the All-State Chorus during December of her junior year, in the middle of her basketball season. Gabrielle has always loved singing, and sang in the school chorus while also investing in voice lessons. Attending the NYSSMA chorus competitions made Gabrielle realize that there were people who put their heart and soul into singing, just as she always had in basketball. Just weeks before her senior basketball season was scheduled to start, Gabrielle still wasn’t sure if she would return to the team or try out for the musical, jokingly comparing herself to Troy Bolton, Zac Efron’s character from the Disney movie “High School Musical,” who was the star of his school’s basketball team before surprising his classmates and joining the musical.

Gabrielle Finora prepares for opening day at Monday’s dress rehearsal for Into the Woods. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

“I had always loved music, and it was always in my house,” Gabrielle said. “My brother played the baritone, and he was really good, and I always heard him when I fell asleep at night. My brother had auditioned for All-State band and got in eight years before I did [All-State chorus], and I wanted to do the same thing.”

The confidence boost from making All-State chorus ultimately gave Gabrielle the push to try out for the musical, a choice she says she hasn’t regretted.

Gabrielle’s parents — Mr. Finora and his wife, Mary Grace Finora — were happy to see Gabrielle give the musical a go after they encouraged her to try out.

“I knew she would get a lot out of it,” Mr. Finora said. “She had the tools, it was just a matter of her making the commitment.

“She always loved music, and thankfully she had an alternative,” he added. “I always had complete confidence in her.”

Putting all her energy and focus into something different didn’t come naturally, at least not immediately. But Gabrielle said she soon realized that being part of the musical could be just as fulfilling.

“It was difficult at first, because I really had to put myself out there in a way I never had before,” she said. “In basketball, you have your teammates, but when I first started out [in the musical] I felt really alone. But the musical has a cast that’s like a team, in its own way. We support each other, and if one person messes up, people have to improvise and go along with what’s going on. They have to continue the story, which is very similar to a basketball game; if you mess up a play, you still go, the game’s still on, the show doesn’t end. So it’s been a really great feeling to be able to put myself out there in a way that I never did before, and to be so welcomed by the cast.”

Looking ahead, Gabrielle plans to attend college and is still waiting to hear back from several schools. She isn’t planning to pursue a theater major, but didn’t rule out continuing to appear in community theater productions, if the opportunity presents itself. She’s excited about the upcoming play, feeling a mix of nerves and excitement, especially for the solo she’ll be singing. Mostly, she’s happy she found her way through the woods of her own life.

“I was bummed for a long time because I loved that team feeling, and I felt like I’d lost that, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to get that with the musical, but I did,” she said. “The cast has really become my new team, and it’s the most incredible feeling.”