Monica Brooks had jumped to block a shot thousands of times. The Shawnee senior had been working on her basketball skills since she was a third grader.
But one jump and awkward landing just days before the start of her junior season changed everything. Brooks felt the pain when she landed and, even though she couldn’t put any weight on her injured knee, she hoped it wasn’t too bad. She had been a starter throughout her high school career and the team was headed toward a great season.
Coach Wendi Wells checked it in the locker room and was immediately concerned. Wells played at the highest levels of women’s basketball, has sufferered numerous injuries of her own and seen many more affect her teammates.
Before long, Brooks was in an operating room having both the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL) in her leg repaired.
Her junior season was over.
“It was a big blow to the team offensively and defensively to lose Monica last season,” Wells said. “She had been the previous year's leading scorer and leading rebounder. Most of our offense ran through the post so to lose a post with not only her ability but also her leadership, it took a while to adjust and spread the floor.”
After the surgery, Brooks experienced a lot of pain. That pain would be a part of her life for months as she endured physical therapy to rehabilitate the joint so she could make it back for her senior year.
“I started physical therapy about a week and a half after surgery,” she said. “I could barely move my knee when it started.”
Brooks was never much of a talker on the court as a player, but when her ability to play was taken away, she had to find another way to help her team.
“I had to become a vocal leader,” she said. “I was on the sideline by coach so I could see more than when I was playing. I’m not normally a vocal leader, but I had to in order to help the team.”
Brooks also led by example through her work ethic, trying to make it back from the injury.
“Monica was at practice every day and when she wasn't, she was at therapy,” Wells said. “Everyone knew how hard she was working to get back to playing. That means a lot because through that she can still lead. Her working so hard on rehab shows younger kids how you need to train even if you are hurt. ”
She also provided a lot of encouragement and support for the players on the court.
“She was their biggest cheerleader on the bench during the games and she had a chance to really see the game from a coach’s perspective,” Wells said.
But it wasn’t always easy.
For a top level athlete to experience some depression when the game is taken away from them due to injury is not abnormal. Brooks wasn’t immune to that, but she was thankful for the support she received in the meantime.
Her family, teammates and coaches all came through for her by encouraging her and, sometimes, just by spending time with her and bringing her food after the surgery.
The injury hit her father, Greg Brooks, pretty hard too.
“It was hard because when she cried, all I could do is cry with her,” Mr. Brooks said. “But her coaches and friends were there for her. Coach Wells talked her through a lot when Monica had bad days.”
Wells understood what Brooks was going through and she used her experience to help Brooks when the pain or sadness was harder to deal with.
“Through having all my injuries and seeing teammates go through injuries, I just wanted her to understand that she was not alone, that I understood because I had been in that position as well,” Wells said. “It doesn't make it any easier when you are in that moment as a player but hopefully it can be comforting to know that you aren't the only one dealing with the doubt, the frustration of not playing, and at times, the self-pity. You learn that you have to use all of those feelings to drive yourself in your rehab to not only be as good as before but hopefully better than you were to begin with.”
Wells’ understanding injuries was only part of what drove her concern for her player.
“As coaches we don't only care about Monica or the other players as a players, we care about them as people,” Wells said. “You develop relationships with all the players and you know when they are hurting and you want to help them but also use it as a moment to teach them how to help themselves.”
As Monica was finishing physical therapy, Greg said he was excited to see where her senior season would take her.
“I don’t know how she did it,” he said. “She had to work hard. She put in a lot of time and worked on her own when she wasn’t in physical therapy.”
After eight months, Monica was allowed to begin jogging again and her hard work paid off when – only two weeks before her senior season began – she was cleared to return.
She doesn’t feel like she is at 100 percent yet, but she can see improvement.
“I’m not as fast as I was before,” she said. “But that gets better every day.”
Her return has been a big part of the Lady Wolves’ early success as they are already ranked in the top twenty in their first season in 6A.
“Our team goal is to have success at the 6A State Tournament,” she said.
With outstanding junior Makyra Tramble and some of the other younger players who saw extra playing time last year while Monica was out with an injury, the Lady Wolves are 7-3 with games at home against two 5A top fifteen teams this week before hosting their own tournament the following week. During that tournament, a recent transfer player will become eligible.
Lauren Fields, a junior who has already committed to play for the University of California, recently joined the team after her family decided to move from Deer Creek to Shawnee, where her father is a pastor.
The addition of another good player will only make it more difficult for teams to double team any of the Lady Wolves going forward.
“In her absence last season, we had several players who had to change and adjust their roles and step up their scoring and rebounding and defense,” Wells said. “Because of that, they are better, but now that we have added Monica back into the mix, our offense and defense has more options and experience.”
Beyond the team goals, Monica had individual goals that motivated her when physical therapy was difficult.
“I always had schools I dreamed of playing for,” she said. “But now, I just want to find a good school who will take a chance on me.”
Wells said she has no doubt that Brooks will get that chance.
“She will definitely play at the next level,” she said. “There have already been multiple schools express interest. As they have all said, it's not only talent they look for but the type of person the kid is on and off the floor, their work ethic and willingness to get better. That is definitely her! Monica is not only a great player and leader on the floor, but she is a great person and a great student role model.”
Brooks’ dream is to play at the next level before turning that experience and education into a chance to be a coach herself.
Her injury was a setback for the accumulation of statistics to impress scouts, but a year on the bench with her coach and seeing how to care for players on and off the court helped prepare her in ways she hadn't expected.
Brooks learned a lot spending a year on the bench with Wells, she said, but she is ready to spend this season being a leader on the court and not the bench.
She doesn’t take things for granted now and was excited to get back to normal and playing the first game this year made that a reality.
“When they called my name as a starter in that first game,” she said. “That’s when I felt like I was really back.”
Brooks will be a big part of the Lady Wolves’ success this year, just as they were a big part of her success getting back on the floor for her senior season.