Thirteen seconds remain in the first half. It’s the third game of Clark’s 2014-15 season and the championship game of the Yakima Valley Tournament against Centralia.
Clark’s captain and leading scorer Shantell Jackson is driving baseline on the left side. She cuts back on the Trailblazer defender, but the next thing she hears is not the swish of the net or a referee’s whistle–it’s a pop.
“It was scary painful,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to get up. I just stayed on the floor for at least five minutes.”
The injury turned out to be more than scary and painful: A completely torn ACL and meniscus. And Jackson, who had been averaging 27 points per game, was out for the season. Jackson didn’t know the extent of the damage at the time. But the injury did prompt head coach Al Aldridge to find other ways to win.
“We had to revamp everything we were doing at that point because Shantell was such an integral part of everything we did,” Aldridge said two weeks ago. “We’ve dedicated more time to defense this year than we have in the past. Our defense is keeping us in games.” The Penguins are allowing 67.8 points per game.
Clark was optimistic coming into this season after going 26-4 and finishing fifth in the Northwest Athletic Conference tournament last year.
Despite losing Jackson, the Penguins aren’t quitting on this season. As of Jan. 22, Clark is 9-5 and third in the NWAC West Region according to nwacsports.org. Jackson says the success is because of Aldridge’s competitiveness.
“Al doesn’t like to lose,” she said. “When I was playing and Al would critique me on everything I did, it would annoy me. But now that I’m not playing I understand where he’s coming from.”
“I don’t care what it is, I’m gonna beat ya,” the coach said. “If you’re better than me at something I’m going to figure out a way to cheat and get ya. I’m not always proud of the way that competitive spirit gets displayed but my intent is that hopefully it gets contagious.”
The night of her injury, Jackson was carried back to the training room and given a test to evaluate the damage to her knee. According to Jackson, the trainer who tested her didn’t have big enough hands to know for sure but it didn’t look good. Clark went on to lose that night 62-71.
A couple of days later, on her birthday, Jackson got a call from her doctor. It wasn’t the gift she wanted.
Jackson said she was unsure about surgery because she thought she could recover without it. “I was like, ‘I don’t even need surgery,’ but then they showed me my ACL and it was completely gone,” Jackson said. She had surgery three weeks ago in which doctors used part of her patellar tendon and a cadaver to replace the ligament.
She said the doctors told her she can start jogging in five months and in six months she’ll be fitted for a brace. She can be “physically released” by her doctor in nine months.
Jackson’s impressive play prior to the injury motivates her. “It just makes me want to work even harder when I can shoot and run again,” she said.
Athletic director Ann Walker said Jackson’s injury was a huge loss for the team. “There is no doubt that she provided great skill and athleticism to the team, as well as experience as a 2-year starter,” Walker said.
Last season, when the Penguins did so well, Aldridge relied on a collection of what the coach calls “kickback kids,” three players who had previously played at higher division schools but then returned home to the Vancouver area for one reason or another.
West Region MVP Brooke Bowen and West Region First Team All-Stars Nicolette Bond and Haley Grossman, who led last year’s Penguins after stints at bigger schools, weren’t able to return, having finished two years of play.
But this season, Aldridge struck out in his search for more “kickback kids.”
“I looked hard over the break for any Division I or Division II kickback kids that went away to school, didn’t have a good experience, came home and weren’t going back… but there weren’t any local kids that did that,” he said.
Consequently, this year’s sophomores on Clark’s roster have had to step up.
According to Aldridge, they’ve done just that. Point guard Taylor Howlett is second in assists, fifth in three point field goals and top 20 in steals according to nwacsports.org. Micaela Bitanga is playing the “best basketball of her career,” Aldridge said.
Due to other injuries this year, Clark has only had nine players available at times. Bitanga’s natural position is a guard but she has been asked to play the post, Jackson said.
These injuries have allowed players who would otherwise be reserves to play bigger roles. “It’s up to them to seize that opportunity and either go with it or blow it,” Aldridge said.
Jackson is looking at her injury as a blessing in disguise. “It kinda helps me because I wanted to get into this early childhood transfer degree that takes three years so now I can just do it,” she said.
Her injury happened at the right time, because if she would have played two or three more games her eligibility would have run out for next year, according to Jackson.
The team’s goals have been altered but in the end it’s about getting to the NWAC tournament, Aldridge said.
“I think our goal realistically has gone from hoping to win the West like we did last year to maybe be in the top three,” he said. “At the NWAC tournament anything can happen.”
Here is the Interview Transcript.