Back and Better Than Ever
Taylor Freeman sprung out of her textbook box out, leaped to the meet the defensive rebound opportunity on its descent, higher than anybody else on the floor, grabbed it with two hands and turned up the court.
With one push of the basketball and maybe two dribbles, Freeman was across the half-court line, flooring the orange past a pack of chasing South Eugene Axe, eyes up, full sprint ahead.
She got to the rim with ease. And with one Axe forward in her way, Freeman came to a full two-footed jump stop on the dead run, bodied the defender with her left shoulder to create a little space and finished high off the glass for two.
No limp. No hesitancy. No awkward gait. This was vintage Freeman in full form, the fastest, most physical player on the floor in her element, leading the young Jesuit girls' basketball team to its ninth non-league win of the year. Any follower of the Crusaders would come to expect such an explosive Freeman feat over the last three years. Had they tuned out from February of last year until now, everything about that play would have been familiar.
Yet, it's an image that seemed unlikely less than a year ago. Against Southridge on Feb. 1, Freeman was fouled hard on a fastbreak layup attempt and landed wrong on the fall. Freeman could hear the pop, the one that haunts most athletes after suffering a brutal injury. But five minutes later Freeman was asking head coach Jason Lowery to get back into the game. Even that night in the emergency room, doctors believed Freeman suffered nothing more than a sprain. Her knee was stiff, not loose, they said, which normally is a good sign that the anterior cruciate ligament was intact.
But an MRI revealed otherwise. Freeman's left ACL was completely torn. A month later, Freeman underwent a surgical procedure to have the ACL repaired. As a junior, with an important spring and summer on the AAU circuit upcoming, the timing could not have been much worse. For rising seniors hoping to earn a collegiate scholarship, the summer after their junior season often dictates their collegiate future. Not only did Freeman miss Jesuit's run through the Class 6A state tournament, but she also couldn't play any club ball whatsoever. In fact, for the first month after the surgery, Freeman couldn't bend her knee at all. Her left leg atrophied away, hard-earned muscle vanishing by the day with the doctor-order inactivity. In April she was allowed to take on leg raises, a big step considering the trauma her knee had endured.
But rather than sulk and stew, Freeman took heart. She attacked the rehabilitation process the same way she drives to the rim: all gas, no tepidness, just grit, dedication and a goal in mind: get back faster than anybody has from an ACL reconstruction. Freeman was diligent and ferocious, keenly determined to get back on the court for her senior year, to prove to the college coaches that wanted to take a wait-and-see approach to her recruitment that she was even better than before. A highly motivated, ambition-driven athlete as is, Freeman found new ways to fan her competitive inferno. Leg raises led into one-legged squats, simple basketball exercises, bike riding and running lightly on the treadmill. It took Freeman two months just to bend her leg enough to get it in the foot holsters on the stationary bike. Yet with each passing benchmark, Freeman's surefootedness swelled. Walking without her brace restored her faith. Jumping in the air for the first time, one of her greatest attributes, sent her sense of physical self into another stratosphere.
This wasn't some modern medical miracle. This was yeoman work. What others might find tedious, Freeman found incentivizing. Her future goals rested on her hunger to return to the hardwood. Doctors told the Crusader guard to "slow down" as she eagerly asked for more and more exercises and extra rehab techniques. Normally, an ACL tear takes a year to return from, then additional time for an athlete to feel like themselves again. But Freeman's positivity was her power. When Jesuit began conducting team organized activities in late October, seven and a half months post invasive surgery, Freeman was going full bore. Since then, Lowery estimates he's given Freeman two days off during that time. There were no minute restrictions placed on Freeman's plate. Load management was unnecessary. Against North Medford, in Jesuit's season opener, Freeman was in full uniform, starting, thriving almost eight months to the day since her career was almost put in jeopardy.
"That was one of my favorite games ever, just seeing her back out there playing," Lowery said. "When she got hurt, I felt for her, especially for someone that loves basketball as much as Taylor. To have that taken away from her, my heart hurt for her. More than anything else, she loves to compete. To see her come back and put forth a good effort is what it's all about.
"She works really hard on her craft and she hit rehab really hard," Lowery said. "She put in the work, which isn't easy because it's usually pretty boring, mundane stuff. She attacked it competitively. I'm just happy for her as a senior to see it all pay off."
Freeman's physical certainty is fully restored. You can tell by the way she attacks the game. In traffic, she's at ease and unafraid. On the glass, she's eager to snare rebounds. When the ball is in her hands there is no hesitation. She can drive at the drop of a hat, explode off her first step, burrow inside and absorb blows from helping bigs. Defensively she's not favoring the leg or lugging around the knee like an unneeded appendage. She's moving well, crouched in a stance, sliding her feet to cut off drives to the rim. Freeman wears black sleeves on both knees, probably to prevent the inevitable floor burns that the senior small forward will pick up through the throes of the season. The scar on her left knee is barely noticeable. Oftentimes athletes say the mental hurdle of overcoming a trying injury is the toughest and most arduous to traverse. Regaining trust in the regenerated limb and forgetting about the past is often the last barricade to full restoration. Yet Freeman is bouncing and flying around as if her knee is stronger and more flexible than before.
"It's been crazy, but right now I feel like I didn't even have surgery," Freeman said. "When I'm in the game, I don't think about it at all. It's blowing my mind. Every single game I play I'm just gaining more confidence in myself. I don't want to sound cocky, but I'm proud of myself. I really am. But I'm also proud of my team. We're young. We have a lot of freshmen, but so far, we're doing great. Each game we're getting better and better."
The time on the sideline turned Freeman into more of a cerebral player. So reliant on her physical gifts during her basketball life, Freeman was forced to inspect the game as an observer. She discovered nuances she'd never seen in real-time, like how an extra half step toward the middle of the key on defense can be the difference between a block and charge or how a defender's stance can expose a weakness and be exploited as a driver. Freeman became a student of the game, one with a deep thirst for acquired knowledge. She was an extra set of eyes and ears for Jesuit's state tournament team last year and lent her intellect to the Crusader summer league team as she quested on her comeback tour. Now, she's marrying her talent with an on-court acumen that's being applied on the daily.
"I think it's been a blessing in disguise," Freeman said. "I feel like I wouldn't have been as good of a player as I am right now (without the ACL tear). In the beginning, I was a little down on myself because I worked so hard. But I learned so much, just being on the bench and internalizing the game. I saw things I could work on. I feel like I've gotten so much better as a player, noticing those little things here and there that make a big difference."
Details have never mattered so much. Tasks that once seemed trivial, like stretching pre and post-game, warming up properly, cooling down after games, are treated with utmost importance. But above all, Freeman has a fresh perspective and a new appreciation for a sport she's given her existence to.
"Now, I don't take any plays for granted," Freeman said. "I don't take any game for granted. Now I think 'This could be the very last game I play', so I give it my all now. Before, I would try my best, but not the way I take it now. I take it way more seriously as a player. It's made me a better player."
Freeman has big goals, now that her return is way ahead of schedule. First, she wants a state championship for Jesuit. The Crusaders are super green with five freshmen in the rotation, but they're talented and cohesive, thanks to inclusive leadership from Freeman and fellow senior Kailynn Tuck. Offensively, Jesuit plays positionless hoops. The Crusaders' best offense, Lowery said, is when Freeman snatches a defensive board, leads the transition game and makes the primary bulk of the decisions. Surrounded by multidimensional playmakers who can all shoot, pass and dribble, Freeman is Jesuit's offensive fulcrum. Lowery said Freeman's last two games against Clackamas and South Eugene were her top two of the season, which aligns with her upturn and uptick in court time.
"Taylor's best basketball is still in front of her both this season and at the next level," Lowery said. "The one thing about injuries is you learn about yourself and you learn about the game cognitively. That's helped her. I think she'll continue to develop more skills. Usually, when you tear an ACL it takes several months just to get back and then another several months to get back to where you were. She'll continue to get stronger as the season goes."
Personally, Freeman is set on seeing her Division One dreams through. Schools that put their scholarship offers on a pending hold because of the knee have begun contacting Freeman again, after seeing her marked progress on the highlight videos she's sent them early in the year. Universities such as Washington State and Pepperdine want to observe her person. A few colleges have put their offers back on the table before anybody else gets their eyes on the player Freeman has become.
"I feel like Wonder Woman right now," Freeman said with a smile. "I thought my career was over. I worked my whole life for this. This season I'm determined to kick butt, do the best I can. I won't let this injury define me."
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