Sometimes, amid winning, the adversity overcome to get there can be forgotten.
Last February, the Whitman-Hanson Regional High girls’ basketball team, which was one win away from making the tournament at the time, hosted Pembroke. W-H was on fire in the early going, up 10-0, with six of those points coming from then-sophomore point guard Erin Leahy.
“In my head, I was thinking she was going to have a career night,” head coach Jenna Olem said as she reflected on the game.
But, things took a turn for the worse for Leahy. After snatching a steal, off the Panthers’ press, Leahy jump cut and went up for a routine layup, but her return down was anything but routine, as she hit the floor awkwardly and immediately went down in pain.
“I knew that something went wrong because I heard it pop,” Leahy said as she reflected on the injury. “I was so scared.”
Olem said the team was in a state of shock when Leahy, who has been struggling with knee problems for a while, went down, but it had to keep pushing forward, even if it was going to be without its floor general.
“When it actually happened, everyone was so focused on winning that clincher that we had to move on quickly and focus on the task at hand,” Olem recalled.
Leahy, with the help of the trainer, made it off the court and headed into the trainer’s office, where she was given ice and crutches, before returning to the sidelines. It was there where she watched her team finish off Pembroke, 63-32, securing its first tournament berth since the 2013-14 season.
With the team and Leahy holding out hope it wasn’t serious, she headed for an MRI a few days later, and the results: a torn left ACL, sidelining her for the rest of the season.
Classmate, friend since kindergarten and familiar face on the basketball court since third grade, Kathryn Dunn, said the news was devastating.
“I was crushed because that meant I couldn’t play with my partner in crime, as coach [Paul] Carroll has called us since freshman year,” Dunn said.
Leahy, despite the injury, never missed a game or practice, but she knew being stuck on the sidelines wasn’t where she belonged.
“It just upset me so much that I knew I wanted to get back so much sooner than I was predicted,” Leahy said.
Eleven days after season’s end, Leahy underwent surgery.
“They said the earliest I’d come back was nine months, but since everything happened the way that it did, they were thinking a year, so that’s what they put in my head,” she said.
Within a few weeks, Leahy, with that one-year timeline in the back of her mind, began physical therapy, working on her hamstrings and building up strength in her leg.
“I continued it for about six months and it was two days a week for like an hour and a half,” Leahy said.
“So, going to [physical therapy] I worked so hard and I put a lot of time and effort into getting back and I did a lot of the exercises at my house. So, it was really just beating the odds of what they thought I was going to.”
Although Leahy, was kept off the court, there was no keeping her away from the game of basketball and over the summer and fall, she coached the Panthers’ league teams. She said it allowed her to see basketball from a new viewpoint, albeit one she didn’t expect to have an angle from so soon.
“It was cool to see like a coach’s perspective and when playing, I now have a whole new perspective on the game,” Leahy explained.
When Nov. 27 tryouts rolled around, Leahy was ready to go, nearly eight months after surgery. Olem, who said she talked with her frequently over the offseason, said she felt a sense of joy and relief to see Leahy back out there.
“She is a kid that takes no days off,” Olem said. “I was honestly skeptical about having her back right from the get-go, but she cleared all the benchmarks with the doctor and physical therapist and was ready and willing to go full speed since the start of tryouts.”
Leahy said some of the best words of advice she received during the lenghty recovery process actually came from her brother, Sean, who suffered the same injury two years prior.
“He kind of just said that he knows how tough it is, but time can really only heal it and work as hard as I could with [physical therapy],” she said. “It was basically what I had to do with myself and he kind of showed me that with his injury.”
Since returning to action, Leahy, now a junior captain, is a major reason the girls’ basketball team, which sits at 7-1 and is on pace for its best campaign in eight seasons, is enduring such immense success.
“Having her back on the court this year shows that she was the missing link as we made our way towards the tournament without her,” Olem said. “She is so strong and athletic and can do so many different things on the court that it makes us as a team deeper and more versatile.
“Erin continues to grow as a leader and is becoming better every practice and every game. During the first game of the season, we lost Halle [Julian] and Kathryn to injuries. Erin was able to stay calm and even keeled, and the younger kids were able to really look up to her and she was able to hit clutch three in overtime.”
Dunn, who is also a junior captain, echoed Olem’s sentiment.
“Having Erin back this year changes the dynamic of the team because she is a versatile player who can play all positions from point guard to center,” Dunn said. “Her ability to play many positions makes us more flexible as a team.”
The Panthers recently wrapped up a trip to Fort Myers, Florida to compete in a three-game Queen of Palms Tournament. W-H went 3-0 and captured the Emerald Division title and Leahy was tapped to the all-tournament team.
“Now, I just tell her to be honest with me,” Olem said. “If she is sore or feels a tweak she needs to rest, get ice, etc. Besides playing positions one through five for us all year, she is inching towards where she was pre-injury and will end up being better than she was before the injury, but we keep reminding her that she cannot get it all back at once and needs to be patient as she has not played at all over the course of her nine-month long recovery.”
Leahy said the biggest adjustment since returning has been just how different her leg is now, but it’s not a challenge she has to go through alone.
“It’s hard to play like I did before the surgery, but having my team behind my back and everything and, my coaches and they were being so supportive, just makes it a lot easier knowing they understand where I’m at,” she said.
Whether watching Leahy battle for boards, crash the floor in pursuit of a loose ball or slide into the lane for an easy two, know she doesn’t take the game of basketball as a given, not after what went through.
“I don’t really take it for granted anymore because it was taken away from me for so long,” Leahy said. “It’s nice to get back and the fundamentals that I had to start over with again just really made me a stronger player.”