In normal circumstances, the most emotional moment of a district tournament comes at the end when a team is celebrating its accomplishments by cutting down the nets.
For Elyria Catholic, the most emotional moment came early in the first quarter of its district semifinal win over Lutheran West. That’s when junior Abby Winnen returned to the court after missing 13 games with a hyperextended left knee.
“I almost cried checking in at the (scorers) table,” Winnen said. “It was so emotional, I was so happy to be back and have everyone cheering for me.”
It was a long 60 days of enduring the pain from the injury itself — which occurred in a game against Maryvale, Ariz., when the Panthers traveled to the Cactus Jam tournament — physical therapy and trying to stay in shape while only being able to do nonimpact exercises.
However, the toughest part was seeing her teammates and her twin sister Ally take the court while she couldn’t.
“It was so hard watching them play because I’m a competitor and I wanted to be out there,” Winnen said, “But being able to cheer them on was the next best thing I could do.”
Winnen will be back on the court for the Panthers (21-4) on Wednesday when they face Ravenna Southeast (21-3) in the Division III regional semifinals at Cuyahoga Falls High School at 8 p.m.
Although it looked like Elyria Catholic barely missed a beat while going 12-1 in Winnen’s absence, her return is a welcome sight for the Panthers.
“It’s so big to have Abby back,” senior point guard Faith Williams said. “We had one big twin in the lineup, now when the other one comes back that really scares opposing teams.”
Williams was nearly as emotional as Abby about her return to the court.
“When she first checked in it was a heartfelt moment because I knew what it meant to her,” Williams said. “When she scored that first basket I almost teared up it was such a special moment.”
Winnen scored six points against the Longhorns and two in the Panthers’ district final win over Lutheran East, coming off the bench in both games.
Prior to her injury, Winnen was averaging 7.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists a game in a starting role.
“Talent-wise it’s great to have Abby back,” Elyria Catholic coach Eric Rothgery said. “But it’s even bigger emotionally and mentally. It’s been so tough on her. She’s a kid who loves to practice and work hard. Just seeing how happy she is to be back on the court at practice lifts everyone’s spirits.”
Although doctors were able to confirm shortly after the injury that it was not a dreaded ACL tear, the pain, swelling and the partial tear of the meniscus meant it was no guarantee she’d be back on the court this season.
In fact, Winnen wasn’t cleared for running and basketball activity until Feb. 18.
“It was a waiting game,” Winnen said. “They had to see if I could play on it on not. I kinda had a feeling I’d be cleared because it was feeling better but I didn’t know for sure.”
Winnen said her doctors told her they might have cleared her sooner if she was a senior, but they didn’t want to take any chances on her having a destabilizing injury which could have carried over into her final year of high school basketball.
“To have one Winnen on your team is awesome, having two is unbelievable,” Rothgery said.
The team is going to watch Winnen’s minutes carefully over the remainder of the season. And although she is still wearing a knee brace, she said it really hasn’t adversely affected her game.
“The only thing that’s a struggle right now is conditioning,” Winnen said. “After missing two months I’m still trying to get back into shape.”
Now the team can focus on the “unfinished business” as Winnen calls it of getting back to Columbus and winning a state title.
“Now that Abby’s back the team is together. No missing pieces,” Williams said. “All we have to do is keep working hard and seal the deal.”
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