If anyone understands what hard work and loyalty is, it has to be Lauren Mertz.
Mertz, who recently signed to play basketball at Kansas State, has battled back from not one, but two ACL tears in back-to-back seasons, to get where she is today.
Despite the major knee injuries, and the fact that Mertz hasn’t played competitive basketball since her freshman season at Blue Valley Northwest, K-State has remained committed to her every step of the way.
While other schools have dropped recruits for less, K-State has shown over the years that it’s not afraid to take a chance on a young athlete. Former point guard Mariah White was another who came to K-State with an extensive history of knee injuries and found her way back to the court to finish fourth in school history for assists.
“They’ve been so great standing by me and believing in me this whole time,” said Mertz, who was just cleared to begin playing basketball again two weeks ago. “It’s been the greatest support. When I called and told them what happened, they said, ‘OK, that’s fine, you can do this, you’ll get through it, and you’ll come back better.’ That was one of the greatest things to hear after going through that.”
Mertz, a 6-foot guard, committed to K-State following her freshman year and will join two others in the 2013 signing class — 6-0 guard Shaelyn Martin (Salina) and 6-3 forward McKenna Treece (St. Peters, Mo.).
“Lauren brings a combination of strength, toughness and the versatility to play an inside-outside game,” K-State coach Deb Patterson said. “She plays every possession hard, and brings a strong competitiveness to rebounding the ball. She has attacked rehabilitation of her knee injuries with equal resolve and toughness.
“Lauren has the potential to develop the dynamic inside-outside type of offensive game that we see from current player, Katya Leick.”
Mertz, who has played in the same AAU program as current Wildcat freshmen Kindred Wesemann and Jessica Sheble, was raised a post because of her obvious size, but has worked to develop into more of a guard in recent years.
It’s because of her history playing inside that Mertz — who led her team in rebounds as a freshman — said has allowed her to play with a certain degree of physicality as a guard on the outside.
“I think I’m able to be more physical than most guards are, because of my size,” she said. “I think, for my size, I have good speed and being a bigger guard is beneficial to me because I can attack the basket off the dribble with more strength — I feel really comfortable doing that.”
But admittedly, Mertz’s development has been slowed due to the injuries — her left ACL as a sophomore and her right ACL as a junior. That makes her senior season all the more important as she prepares for the transition to the college game next year.
“I think its put me at a disadvantage because I’ve had to work twice as hard as other people to get back into top shape,” said Mertz, who earned honorable mention All-Eastern Kansas League honors as a freshman. “But I also think I’ve learned a lot from the experience that most kids don’t learn this early.”
Mertz said she isn’t concerned about suffering another setback at this point.
“I’m really not nervous about it happening again, because right now, if it were to happen again, I know I’ve done everything I can and have worked as hard as I can,” she said. “If it happens, it happens. But I’m really confident this year is going to be a good one, finally.
“The doctors just said it was just bound to happen to me with how my knees were, genetically. It was unfortunate, but I’m glad I got them both out of the way. And now, I feel like I’m 10 times stronger and ready for basketball this season.”
Mertz had early interest from Kansas and Minnesota before choosing K-State in what now seems like a lifetime ago. She said the Wildcats’ philosophy is similar to that of her AAU team.
“I love their whole philosophy as a team — not just what they do on the basketball court, but also as leaders in the classroom and their strong character. I believe in what they’re doing. My AAU team has a similar playing style, getting out and running with it, so I think I can adapt well.
“They have a great family atmosphere, too. I visited other schools and the culture was completely different — they weren’t so welcoming. At K-State, you could tell everyone wants you to succeed on and off the court.”
K-State will return to action Thursday afternoon when the Wildcats (2-2) open the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas against SMU at 3. The winner of that first-round matchup will play the winner of the Virginia/Tennessee game on Friday.