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With medical, emotional support, top girls basketball players rebound from season-ending injuries

A generation ago, a serious injury could wipe out a career. Now, players are comign back stronger than ever.

As Glenelg's girls basketball team played for a state championship in March, forward Julia Wolfrey sat courtside in a wheelchair feeling a bit sorry for herself.

The day before, she had surgery to repair the torn ACL in her right knee. When the game started, she could only think about how she was missing what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"At first, it was really overwhelming to realize what was going on, seeing my team out there on the floor without me, and my school in the stands," Wolfrey said. "At first, I was really upset.

"As they kept playing, I thought I shouldn't be thinking like that; there's nothing I can do to change this and I felt so proud of them. It was a really good experience, actually. For myself, to just realize that bad things can happen, but there comes a point where you can't do anything about it except care about the other people. They were all there supporting me and they had dedicated the previous game to me and it wasn't worth being selfish."

In that moment, Wolfrey knew she would be OK. She would cheer for her team the rest of the game as they won the Class 3A state championship and she would dedicate herself to come back as a senior and help them get back to the state title game.

For Wolfrey and a handful of the area's other key players coming back from injury this winter, there were moments of disappointment and fear before they realized they too wanted to come back stronger than ever.

Old Mill center Rebecca Lee also tore an ACL late last season. McDonogh guard Taleah Dixon tore one during Amateur Athletic Union basketball in April. Manchester Valley guard Mackenzie DeWees tore the labrum and cartilage in her right shoulder during AAU season.

All four players will be critical to their teams making playoff runs this season, and all are back on the court.

Their coaches are taking it a little easy on them, not letting them play entire scrimmages, because as Glenelg coach Chris Beil said of Wolfrey with a laugh, "I don't want to ruin her before the season starts."

Old Mill coach Rick Smith, like Beil, doesn't want Lee, a 6-foot-1 All-Metro post player, to overdo it. He needs her for the stretch run more than the early season.

Last year, Lee was just as frustrated as Wolfrey as she watched the undefeated Anne Arundel County champion Patriots fall to North Point in the Class 4A East regional final. They won the regular season meeting, in which Lee scored 29 points.

"This is my last year," Lee said, "and I really want to win states and I want to take my team that far so we can finish with a bang. In 10th grade, we went to states and in 11the grade, I really wanted to win but I tore my ACL. This year, it's really important to come back and try to win."

Lee would like to be back in the lineup full time with the No. 3 Patriots right away, but she understands Smith wanting to ease her back in.

"One of the things that's hardest for me is patience," Lee said. "I'm a person who wants things now, but I know with my knee if I don't have patience right now I might mess it up again."

Still, Lee said, when she's playing, she doesn't think about the knee. Developing that mental strength can be as important as the physical rehabilitation.

Dixon played all of last season, as the Eagles finished second in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference. She tore her left ACL after making a layup in April. She said she doesn't think about the injury either, because she knows she'll be OK even if it happens again.

"Through the whole process, you can't get down on yourself. You've got to know you'll be back from it," the junior All-Metro guard said.

"My sister [Ebonee Dixon] tore her ACL at the same age and she's playing at Wilmington University now. I'm just following in her footsteps, because I saw that she can recover from it and she's strong. I'm strong too."

DeWees, the two-time Carroll County Player of the Year, discovered she was stronger than she thought after needing three plastic anchors inserted in her shoulder to reattach the labrum to the bone. The junior, who is already closing in on 1,000 career points, had to learn how to shoot all over again.

She couldn't get her arm to a 90-degree angle for about two months after surgery, so she couldn't work on the shooting motion until then. She couldn't shoot a basketball until four months after the May 11 surgery.

"Basically, I had to retrain my arm how to shoot again and get the mechanics back down," DeWees said, "so I couldn't shoot until October and I couldn't lift my arm up for three months. When I was cleared [to play], I was really nervous, but I think I'm 100 percent and as time goes on, I will be a better shooter and I'll be stronger mentally and physically. I think this injury has helped me a whole lot."

Heather DeWees, who coaches her daughter at No. 11 Manchester Valley and in AAU, said one of the more helpful things these days is that so many other athletes have gone through the same recovery processes as these four players.

"When I had my ACL done in high school, I was the only one," the coach said. "Yasmin Lewis, who plays for Seton Keough, had the same surgery as Mackenzie a year earlier and she's running up to her this summer and saying, 'Oh yeah, this is what happens.' So they have a network via texting and the Internet where they're able to connect immediately. The volleyball player Kerri Walsh [Jennings] had five [shoulder surgeries], so Mackenzie's like, 'If she had five of these and she's still doing that, then I'm going to be OK.' You see that and you have hope and inspiration that 25 years ago might not have been there."

Wolfrey said former Glenelg players Sam Heisig and Emily Russo, who also suffered torn ACLs, reached out to reassure her.

"They both texted me and walked me through everything that was going to happen in the surgery and what comes afterward. They just said I'll get through it and that I'd come back stronger than before."

After the first few days of practice, Wolfrey's knee was sore, so she took a couple days off, but now she's outrunning her teammates in sprint drills the way she did before. Just like Lee, Dixon and DeWees, she can't wait to play a game and take on the added leadership role that will be expected of her this winter.

Wolfrey has no doubt that she will be OK.

"In our scrimmage, I just told myself, 'Don't think about it,' because my physical therapist said once you're 100 percent back, the knee is just as good as it was before."

These players might be even better.

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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