Few situations are worse for athletes than being sidelined by injuries and struggling to regain form in their wake. Junior forward CJ Tibbling grew all too familiar with that situation during his first two years at Seton Hall.
He entered his freshman season with the men’s soccer team with a heel injury that prevented him from having a full preseason with his new team. Despite earning Second Team All-Big East honors and a unanimous selection to the Big East All-Freshman Team, a resurgence of the injury midway through the season stalled his strong start.
His sophomore year was dealt an even harsher blow after another foot-related injury and liquid found in his heart prevented Tibbling from having another proper preseason. His form dropped as well, scoring just one goal in 12 appearances as he attempted to find his fitness during the season. It was a slow burn that slowly drained away at Tibbling that season.
“It went into my studies a little bit too,” he said. “When I wasn’t doing well on the field, then I lost some motivation to keep on top of my schoolwork. It’s a bad spiral, you do bad on the field, you do worse in school, and then you do even worse on the field. Assignments are overdue and then we’re traveling every other week and you don’t get a lot of sleep, especially when you have to wake up early to travel to Creighton or Marquette.”
That’s why when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States and sent Tibbling back home to Sweden until conditions improved, he saw it as a blessing in disguise. Back home, the forward had the opportunity to reconnect with his family and get to work on rehabilitating himself at a local gym with his mother.
Before he arrived back in South Orange, N.J. for the fall semester, Tibbling was lifting weights, improving his stamina with intense cardio workouts and discovering the mental benefits of yoga and meditation. Unlike his two previous summers of college soccer, Tibbling was injury-free and able to reach a level of fitness he had not achieved since his first year at Seton Hall.
“It was good being home because my mom is very motivated when it comes to fitness,” Tibbling said. “She used to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It was nice to be able to do that together and be able to help out my mom with my two little sisters because she’s a single parent too.”
The suspension of the fall soccer season to the spring only further benefited Tibbling’s ability to have his first full preseason with his teammates. After returning in August, he had five months to further improve his fitness levels and foster the on-field relationships with his teammates that have ultimately made the difference in his performances this season.
“You kind of rediscover your passion for the sport,” Tibbling said. “It makes you want to get back to it and enjoy it more. That’s the only good part about having injuries and going through those things is that you appreciate it a little bit more.”
Tibbling ended the regular season with four goals and an assist for a total of nine points, his highest tally since he reached 14 his freshman year. He’s been the linchpin to Seton Hall’s offensive build-up play, providing the team with a physical presence in attack with technical quality to bring other players into the game with his passing and movement. While his junior year statistics fell short of those from his freshman year, his general play and impact on the team have improved dramatically despite not having played a competitive game since 2019.
“I knew I had the potential to play like how I’m playing now, and I even think I have a little bit more to give,” Tibbling said. “But when you haven’t played games in so long, it takes a little time to get into it. When you have a good preseason, though, then you’re good to go, and I think that’s been the biggest difference from past years.”
The best example of that difference came at St. John’s when Tibbling willed the team to an overtime win over the Red Storm. After going down two goals in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, JP Marin pulled one back after scoring a penalty kick. Tibbling would then tie the game with a Sports Center Top 10-highlight goal, taking a through ball in stride with the outside of his foot and hammering a volley into the net. The game went to overtime, and freshman forward Raz Amir would go on to score the game-winning goal.
Those fall and winter practices did not come without their challenges, though. Tibbling once again ran into issues with liquid in his heart and even contracted COVID-19 in between the fall and spring semesters. He was kept out of full training for nearly two months because of those health complications, and Tibbling said he’s still feeling the effects of COVID-19 well into the season, but it wasn’t obvious given how well this season’s gone for him.
Tibbling started all but one game during the regular season and has helped lead the team to their first Big East Tournament appearance since 2012. On Wednesday, he was named to the All-Big East First Team along with defensive teammate Luca Dahn while several other Seton Hall players were honored with second and third team honors as well.
“When you’re in shape physically, it’s easier to focus on those little details,” Tibbling said. “In soccer, you do a lot of running, and 80% of the time, you don’t even have the ball. So, once you get the ball, if you’re not fit, you’re going to be completely dead and unable to do anything with it. I was talking to my dad the other day about the goal against St. John’s and he was talking to me about getting a few extra touches on the ball that week, and that goal I took on the outside of my boot. I was doing that every day before the game, so that definitely helped a little bit.”
Tibbling is yet to play a full 90 minutes this season, but he’s slowly worked up his stamina while recovering from the side effects of COVID-19. He played a season high 101 minutes at the University of Connecticut and 87 minutes against No. 2 Georgetown, but head coach Andreas Lindberg has managed his star forward’s minutes to less than 80 a game. So far, it’s worked perfectly as far as results are concerned and in maintaining Tibbling’s health ahead of a big game against No. 17 Marquette in Thursday’s Big East Tournament semifinal.
“We’re aiming for that Big East Tournament title,” Tibbling said. “When you get into that winning spirit, it’s a big help and you just want to keep going. That’s the goal, and its very much possible.”
With the Pirates’ go-to goal scorer hitting top gear at the right time of the season, a first Big East Tournament title since 1991 could be on the horizon for Seton Hall.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.