CONNECTING STUDENT ATHLETES WITH COLLEGE COACHES
The sound of a bubble popping told Macy Miller that something not so good happened on her drive to the basket.
It was late July last year, and the 15-year-old from Mitchell was playing for the Dakota Schoolers in the North Tartan Meltdown, an AAU summer basketball tournament in suburban Minneapolis filled with potential college stars.
The sound, turns out, was Miller’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tearing in her left knee. “It all happened so fast,” she said during an interview last week. Surgery followed on Aug. 3 in Sioux Falls, but there were other immediate concerns: Rehabilitation, missing high school volleyball and potential missing part of her sophomore season with the Mitchell girls’ basketball team.
Somewhere down the line, days after the surgery, the issue of her NCAA Division I scholarship offer from South Dakota State rose to the surface. Would SDSU still be interested? What if something went wrong and she missed her entire junior season?
Those are all questions faced by high school players who suffer serious injuries, most of the time to their knees, legs or ankles. When the opportunity to play collegiate sports becomes a distinct possibility, the concern that scholarships will suddenly stop pouring in is a very real issue.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really too nervous about college,” Miller said. “SDSU said they were staying with me; that they weren’t pulling my scholarship.”
In other words, SDSU and head coach Aaron Johnston made it clear early on that, no, they weren’t backing away from their interest. The 5-foot-10 point guard with two years of high school still remaining was high on their list for the 2014 recruiting class.
Every year there are dings and bruises, but the 13th-year coach has developed a philosophy that injuries — of the more serious variety — to high school players do not mean a scholarship is off the table.
“Our mindset is that we’ll continue to recruit them regardless of an injury,” Johnston said. He could not comment directly on Miller until she signs her National Letter of Intent. “That’s the way it should be. You’re certainly bringing them in as a basketball player, but you’re also recruiting a person.
“We wouldn’t just walk away from one of our current players.”
True to their word, the SDSU staff continued to monitor Miller’s rehab process — during her first week post-surgery, she was bed-ridden for 23 hours a day. A week later, she was able to start moving around on both legs. By the winter months, returning to basketball became the focus.
“We were shooting for February if everything went OK, but it got better and better and I was able to come back earlier then we thought,” she said. “We’re very thankful there weren’t any problems.”
In Miller’s first game back to the team, Jan. 2 at Sioux Falls Lincoln, Mitchell lost 71-63 — oddly enough, that was the Kernels’ only defeat of the season. Miller went on to average 15 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game as the Kernels won the Class AA state championship.
Three months later, in June, Miller — again playing for the Dakota Schoolers this summer — officially notified SDSU of her verbal commitment.
“They didn’t ever seem not interested,” she said. “When I committed, he (Johnston) was very excited, and so was I.”
Tracking a recruit’s injury is, however, nothing new for Johnston and SDSU. Like Miller, former SDSU standout Heather Sieler tore her ACL while in high school at Huron, but never fell off the Jackrabbit radar. Lucky thing, too, because she was a freshman starter on the school’s 2003 Division II national championship team.
“As a coach, you have to be aware of health, obviously, but for us, that’s never changed how we view their abilities,” Johnston said, adding that, yes, there are schools that slow their interest after an injury. “Over the last ten, twelve years ago, medical technology has gotten so good that very few injuries that come up take away their ability completely.
“We don’t worry too much about their injuries.”
There was a time, not that long ago, where Miller could have very easily missed her entire junior season and might not have been able to play basketball in any fashion for a full year.
Instead, she and fellow SDSU recruit Kerri Young (an upcoming senior at Mitchell) are the keys to the Kernels’ run at a second straight title. Barring another serious injury, of course.
“I feel 100 percent,” Miller said, adding a laugh. “Hopefully there are no more injuries. It’d be nice to get through a full season this year.”
Zach Kraning has his own story when it comes to the alphabet soup of sports-related injuries. Like Macy Miller in Mitchell, Kraning tore his ACL, but his setback occurred later in his high school career — senior year, to be exact.
That’s why his recruiting process was significantly more stressful than Miller’s.
Kraning, a 6-foot-9 center and Viborg High School graduate, had interest from a number of Division I schools, including a few from the Ivy League. His play on the court thrust him on the radars of many other colleges. He looked the part of a future D-I player.
The first coach to talk to him, though? Don Meyer at Northern State University in Aberdeen.
“I always liked South Dakota schools,” Kraning said of those early conversations with NSU during his junior year. “I didn’t think about it too much back then because I was pretty young, but that’s pretty cool.”
Midway through his senior season, at the Hanson Classic in Mitchell in January, Kraning tore his ACL during a game against eventual state champion White River. While some of his potential college suitors saw the injury as something more serious and therefore slowed their recruiting, Northern State did the opposite. The Wolves and new coach Paul Sather stayed committed.
“The school stayed with me; that was the biggest thing,” Kraning said. “I knew I’d have to redshirt either way, so that played a role too.”
Faced with necessary surgery on his knee, Kraning had two choices: Have the surgery as soon as possible and miss the rest of his senior season with a championship-caliber Viborg-Hurley team, or postpone surgery and fight to make it back in time for the end of the season.
Option B was the ultimate choice.
“It was pretty easy once I figured out that I wasn’t going to play. It never crossed my mind,” he said. Kraning traveled to Yankton a few days per week to rehab at Great Plains Therapy. “I knew early on that I had a chance to come back for the playoffs if I worked hard.”
By the time the district tournament rolled around, Kraning was back in the Viborg-Hurley lineup. He went on to average 12.7 points and 7.1 rebounds as a senior, helping the Cougars reach the Class B championship game — where they lost to, guess who, White River.
In early April, Kraning finally underwent surgery to repair the torn ligaments in his knee. Even faced with surgery, he couldn’t put off a college decision. It was time to decide; it was just a matter of where and what level.
“I didn’t care about the level too much,” Kraning admits. “With Division II’s rather than smaller Division I places, you get a lot better chance to compete for more meaningful things.”
By April 13, a week after his surgery, Kraning had decided on Northern State. Though he would have to redshirt his freshman season in 2012-13 as he recovers from the injury, he ultimately felt most comfortable with the first school to show interest. Not to mention the one that stayed committed throughout his setbacks.
“It just felt right. That was the biggest thing I looked at, whether I could see myself going there for four or five years,” said Kraning, who recorded 1,093 points, 769 rebounds and 367 blocked shots in his career — two years with Viborg and two seasons with Viborg-Hurley.
“If it didn’t feel right, I wouldn’t pull the string.”
‘Where Would I Be Right Now?’
Still only 21 years old, Abby Burbach’s injury history reads like a medical chart. Or at least a multiple choice test question that boasts no positive answer.
Her option would be “all of the above.”
Burbach, a 2009 Yankton High School graduate, was a standout volleyball and basketball player for the Gazelles, destined for college success. Injuries, however, eventually derailed those options. She doesn’t shy away from discussing her disappointment in realizing one day as a senior that her college search would take on a whole new path.
“I always think about it, ‘Where would I be right now if I was playing sports?’ Burbach said from Lincoln, Neb., where she is a student at the University of Nebraska, studying Nutrition and pre-physical therapy. “You just don’t know. I struggled with injuries for seven years, would I even be playing?”
From one injury to the next, Burbach was consistently beset with obstacles.
• In sixth grade, she dislodged cartilage in her knee after chasing after a ball going out of bounds during a basketball game. Following surgery, she wore a brace through the remainder of her middle school years.
• During a high jump attempt at Yankton High School, she developed tendinitis in her knee, which caused pain in her hip and foot. “That complicated everything else,” she admits.
• In a junior year basketball game in Huron, Burbach landed on an opposing player’s ankle and tore her MCL.
• Near the end of volleyball season her senior year, she suffered a stress fracture in her ankle, an injury that carried over to basketball season. She was in a boot for two weeks. “I would literally collapse on the court because it gave out all the time.”
Burbach’s injury was the most common suffered in volleyball, naturally because of the constant side-to-side and front-to-back movement, jumping and planting of the feet. Motions like that caused her the most pain, likewise did the movements in basketball — especially running back and forth down the court.
Despite those lingering problems, Burbach had done enough to thrust herself onto the radars of area colleges (mostly NAIA schools in South Dakota). The letters came, phone calls were received and offers were extended, but she admits she wanted to pursue “city life.”
“There’s something about being from a small town that you want to try something else; experience a bigger city and see what’s out there,” Burbach said. Among the schools that contacted her were Dakota State in Madison and Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell.
Then one day, like a ton of bricks, reality set in.
By the time summer 2008 rolled around and Burbach was preparing for her senior year, the realization that college basketball probably wasn’t going to be an option was a tough pill to swallow. If there were this many issues by age 17, wouldn’t there be further issues down the road?
Logic dictated that, yes, that was probably a safe bet.
“Obviously, part of me wanted to go on and see what I could do,” she said. “But the other part of me was thinking I haven’t had a healthy leg in more than five years, and I didn’t want to have more problems.”
Partly because of her experience with injuries, Burbach developed an interest in physical therapy. She works as a PT tech at an out-patient clinic in Lincoln, and plans to apply to PT school with the hope to eventually become a physical therapist.
Still, there’s a sense of curiosity about what she might have accomplished as a basketball or volleyball player in college.
“The knee problems could be 100 times worse right now,” Burbach said. “There’s always that what-if, though. I was almost ready to be healthy and not limp every day, but high school sports were hard enough. College could have been rough for me.”