As a high school senior, Mike Muggeo had a clear goal: play college basketball for the Saint Joseph’s Hawks.

Muggeo, now a senior at SJU, had offers to play ball at some Division II and Division III schools, but he had always wanted to play at the Division I level. St. Joe’s had been recruiting Muggeo’s high school teammate and current Hawk Pierfrancesco Oliva, and Muggeo got to know some of the coaches. The more he considered his options, the clearer his path became. Saint Joseph’s was familiar, he knew the coaching staff, and he felt he had a good shot at joining the team as a walk-on.

Muggeo was going to play collegiate basketball on Hawk Hill.

Things didn’t go as planned, though. Muggeo was a three-year letterwinner at Bergen Catholic and felt prepared for the tryouts. So, what came next stung: he got cut.

“It was tough because it was the goal and dream throughout high school, and I thought I had done what it took,” Muggeo said. “I thought I had proper preparation and everything to get on the roster, but looking back on it, I didn’t deserve to be on the team… It was hard at the time and I was immature about it. That’s why I left. I left school and I needed time to regroup at home.”

Muggeo dropped out of Saint Joseph’s after the fall semester and went to his hometown of River Vale, New Jersey, taking classes at a community college and working out in his spare time. Back on Hawk Hill, the team went on to win the Atlantic 10 championship and beat Cincinnati in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.

That April, Muggeo decided he wanted to come back to St. Joe’s. Being at home had given him time to reflect on what had happened, and he didn’t like how things had ended.

“I kind of convinced myself when I came back [home] that I gave up and I didn’t like that,” Muggeo said. “My senior year of high school, the goal was I wanted to play college basketball and then it became a little more specific – I want to play college basketball at St. Joe’s… I felt like I could have given it another try.”

Muggeo spent more time in the gym, particularly focusing on working out in the weight room. When he returned to Hawk Hill for his sophomore year, he was ready to work hard and try again.

His tryout went well, but there wasn’t room for him on the roster. Head coach Phil Martelli met with Muggeo and told him that although there wasn’t space for him on the team, he could be very helpful in practices.

A spot on the practice squad wasn’t the same as being on the team, but it was a step closer to his dream.

“I showed up at every practice, I was at film, I was in the weight room, but I wasn’t on the roster, and I didn’t dress for games, so it was like all the work, none of the recognition,” Muggeo said. “I knew in the end all that would pay off, and, eventually, junior year, it did.”

At the end of Muggeo’s sophomore year, Martelli told him he would be on the team the following season. The dream of playing St. Joe’s basketball was just a few months away.

But then there was another bump in the road. Muggeo had experienced some hip pain a few months prior, but it didn’t seem like anything to worry about. The pain didn’t go away over the summer, though, so Muggeo got an MRI and an x-ray. He had a torn labrum that would require surgery, forcing him to sit out his junior season.

Finally, the summer before his senior year rolled around. Muggeo tore his core muscle and had to have surgery in August, but that recovery was quicker and wouldn’t impact his final season. It didn’t take long for him to see action; in the third game, with the Hawks holding a commanding lead over Wake Forest, Muggeo played in his first collegiate game.

“It was such a blur when [Martelli] called my name,” Muggeo said. “I went out there and my adrenaline was through the roof. I was just trying to make sure I didn’t mess up or anything. It was awesome. Being able to process it after and realize that I made it, I got out on the court, was special and it’s something that I’ll never forget.”

Fighting through three years of adversity to finally step on the court (and even record a steal in his collegiate debut) – that would be a great end to Muggeo’s college basketball story.

That’s not the end, though. It gets better.

On the first day of the spring semester, Martelli called Muggeo into his office. Muggeo just assumed it had something to do with grades or scheduling. There’s a scholarship available, Martelli told him, and it’s yours.

“That was just a complete surprise,” said Muggeo, beaming the whole time. “I’ve been really overwhelmed with the amount of people who have reached out to me and congratulated me. All the support means so much … It didn’t feel real, initially. It took some time to process it.”

Muggeo immediately called his dad, who was speechless when he heard the news. Later that night, he FaceTimed his mom, who was jumping with excitement.

This wasn’t the path Muggeo expected to take as a high school senior and it wasn’t always easy. In the end, everything – the work, the dedication, the setbacks – paid off in the best way possible.

“This program has been so good to me for four years,” Muggeo said. “They offered me an opportunity other schools didn’t and for that, I’m super grateful.”

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