By MICHAEL MROZIAK
Niagara Gazette — On the surface, Alyssandra Orfano looks like just another Niagara Falls girl who is preparing to enter college this coming semester.
When Aly, as she's better known, begins her freshman year at Niagara, she will bring with her a unique background story.
She was born in Russia, adopted by an American family, was underweight as a small child and overcame some health issues while growing up. She discovered sports until, finally, she found the sport that would help earn her a partial athletic scholarship to go along with her academic scholarship.
During her interview with the Gazette, Orfano sat in the lounge on the lower level of the Gallagher Center on the Niagara campus. As she took in the environment, Aly realized the challenges that await her when she runs with the Purple Eagles cross country team.
"I'm excited, very excited, but it's going to be really different from high school because it's going to be a lot better," she said. "I'm just going to try and work up to what I can do and just do my best."
Overcoming the odds is nothing new to the young woman. Her mother, Ann Marie Orfano, recalls when they first adopted Aly from Russia.
“She was born at four pounds and when we went to pick her up from Russia, she at 14 months only weighed 14 pounds,” said Mrs. Orfano. "She was always the smallest, the tiniest in weight. I always said she was always two steps behind in everything.
Not for long. Within this little girl there emerged the talent for running.
“I knew she had something when she was about fifth grade,” Mrs. Orfano added. “We were probably about a half mile from the house, she had flip flops on, and I was riding my bike and said ‘Aly, let’s go home.’ She beat me home in flip flops.”
“When we saw her running, and her excelling in running, I always used to say ‘Ally come lately. She’s finally arrived.’”
The youngster dabbled with numerous sports while growing up. She spent about ten years with baseball and softball teams in the Whirlpool Park Little League. She played soccer for many years, a game she acknowledged was a favorite.
Then came a conversation at Niagara Falls High School which put her athletic career on a new path.
“Aly was already a runner of sorts, having participated in outdoor track," said Kenneth Wagner, currently the junior varsity cross country coach at NFHS. "Many of my cross country runners told me about her and her talent for running. In 10th grade she was a student in my History class and I began to recruit her as soon as soccer season was over."
By the end of Aly's sophomore year, Wagner and fellow coach Israel Martinez convinced the girl to go out for cross country. She demonstrated some ability but the challenge, the coaches say, was getting her to realize she was enjoying it.
"I just kind of looked at Aly as your typical high school kid who just needed a little prodding," said Martinez. "Initially it was like a love-hate relationship with the running. She wasn't so sure she liked it. There were times that she hated practicing and then I think she started to find out 'I do like to do this stuff.'"
To help motivate her, the coaches named Aly the cross country team's captain. There was more to prodding Aly than confidence, though. There was also her struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"I had a lot of ADHD. I was on medication," Aly Orfano explained. "I was really tiny, so I'd always have to take supplements to help me gain muscle and get the fat nutrients I needed to grow, and I guess it helped."
By choosing to become a Purple Eagle, young Ally becomes the third generation of her family to enroll at Monteagle Ridge.
“We’re very excited that she chose Niagara University,” said Ally's father, Frank Orfano. “My parents are both alumni. My mom was in nursing and my dad was in education and business. My wife’s parents are both graduates of Niagara University, so both sets of her grandparents are NU grads."
Although a Niagara legacy, Ally acknowledged she is starting again at the bottom of a team's hierarchy as an incoming freshman. Knowing how she set an example as a Wolverine captain, she will now look to her elder teammates to learn and further develop.
As she spoke with the Gazette, some older students passed through the doors nearby, glanced in our direction, then went about their business. Had they been any of Ally's newer, older teammates, what would be the first thing she'd ask?
"How different is it from the high school level to the college level? I know it'll be different but I don't know how different."
Her former coaches believe that if her new coaches can understand her, Aly can thrive at the collegiate level.
"I truly believe that Aly's best running days are ahead of her," Wagner said. "She is just scratching the surface in her knowledge of sport. With the excellent coaching that she will receive NU, Aly will continue to improve. I look forward to watching her run this season."