Heidi Brown didn’t play a single minute in the first five Big 12 games this season.
The sophomore and former walk-on from Plains only averaged a little more than six minutes a game before Big 12 play.
But since Kansas State’s 76-70 overtime victory against Oklahoma State on Jan. 23, it’s been all hands on deck for the struggling Wildcats. Brown’s minutes have expanded to almost 17 minutes a game out of necessity. That’s what happens when a basketball team loses six players during a season — five due to injuries.
Brown, along with another former walk-on in Kendra Spresser, have never been needed more than they have been the last three weeks. With Brown and Spresser, K-State is down to just seven healthy players for the foreseeable future. Though K-State coach Deb Patterson normally tightens minutes and playing time down during conference play, the situation she’s faced with now is more dire because there simply aren’t too many options remaining on the bench if another player goes down.
K-State (12-11, 3-8) lost two players before the season even started when freshman guard Kelly Thomson and junior forward Katya Leick went down with non-contact ACL tears.
Freshman guard Marissa Ellis left the program at semester and sophomore guard Ashia Woods and junior college transfer Ashlynn Knoll both suffered season-ending injuries on Jan. 21. Woods, who started 18 games this season, tore an Achilles and Knoll tore an ACL — both during the first hour of that day’s practice.
Freshman forward Stacey Malone is out indefinitely after missing the last six games with a foot injury.
A team that was already short on height, is now down to just seven guards, with Brown and junior Chantay Caron providing the only remaining size, both of whom are just 5-foot-11.
The results since the onslaught of injuries haven’t been good for K-State. Initially, the Wildcats seemed to use the bad luck as a source of motivation, winning their first game with severely limited numbers against the 12th-ranked Cowgirls. Brown scored a career-high 10 points in that game.
“We’re just going to do what we worked to do (against Oklahoma State),” Patterson said following the Wildcats’ upset of the Cowgirls. “I know what we brought to the floor and I know everyone can see we have a group that has the heart and has learned to be extremely competitive. That’s what we want. When you do that, good things can come from it.”
But since, K-State has lost four straight games, two in a row at home, including a double-overtime thriller against rival Kansas. It doesn’t get any easier going forward either. The Wildcats host Texas on Wednesday — a team that whipped K-State by 19 points two weeks ago — and then has two straight on the road against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
One thing is certain, though. Patterson is growing more and more frustrated with the seemingly growing amount of injuries amongst female athletes.
“It’s a true mystery and if anyone knew the cause, everyone would address it,” she said earlier this season. “It’s extremely frustrating to everyone involved in the game.”
This isn’t the first time Patterson has had to deal with roster-depleting injuries. The Wildcats were also cut down to just seven players during the 2009-10 season when Alina Voronenko, Kelsey Hill and Shalin Spani suffered season-ending injuries. K-State was down to six players in one game that season when Kari Kincaid missed the second half against Nebraska in the Big 12 tournament.
The Jayhawks lost Natalie Knight recently with a torn ACL, marking the fourth KU starter lost to the injury in five seasons. Oklahoma has lost three players to major injuries this season, including Whitney Hand, who tore her ACL for the second time in four years.
Some studies have suggested women have up to 10 times more ACL injuries than male athletes do — and the numbers are rising. Numerous reports cite anatomical differences between the male and female knee could be leading to more tears in ACLs — differences in the knee alignments, the ligaments themselves and even muscle strength in the lower body.
“The non-contact ACL injuries we’re seeing seem to be more widespread,” Patterson said. “Something’s happening and I don’t know if its coming from long-term fatigue, long-term overuse, I don’t know. All I know is that there’s a preponderance of them.”
Because knee injuries do seem to be more common now, programs like K-State are running into more and more high school athletes with long surgical histories. Senior point guard Mariah White tore both of her ACLs in high school and former Wildcat Stephanie Wittman also signed at K-State after having torn an ACL.
Spani, who played at K-State from 2008-11, had six surgeries on her left knee during her playing career, going back to her high school days as well. Even Spresser suffered a major knee injury during her sophomore season at Seward County, forcing her to give up the game for more than a year before joining the Wildcats this summer.
Coming back from the devastating injuries can be a long process, so only time will tell how Thomson and Leick respond. Spani was never the same following her numerous injuries, having never been able to finish a complete season at K-State. White, on the other hand, has remained healthy during her time as a Wildcat, though conditioning was a struggle early on.
“I think it took Mariah some time to really get back,” Patterson said. “I think last year was the first year we really saw her get in shape and begin to assert herself as a dynamic, explosive presence.”
Not all programs will continue to recruit an athlete with history of knee problems, though. Patterson has taken chances on some, but said sometimes she will back off a high school athlete after a serious injury. It just depends on the individual.
“I know I see a lot more of them in high school,” Patterson said. “It depends on the individual athlete and their mental toughness, whether we’ll continue to stay with them. There are some players in high school when they blowout a knee, you immediately raise your antenna and say, ‘OK, deal’s off.’
“The mentality of the athlete, the competitiveness that they already bring to the equation is important. Being off for a year had having to rehab can really soften a player that isn’t already incredibly competitive.”