By: Monty Mosher
Last year could have been a big one for UNB basketball player Jane Boyle.
For rookie Bailey Black, it would have been a time of adjustment to the AUS and life with head coach Jeff Speedy and the Reds.
But neither player made it until the start of the regular season. Improbably, both suffered ACL tears before the end of September.
More than a year later, after recovering and rehabbing from surgery, Boyle and Black are back in uniform. Boyle is further along, but Black has been able to play and is getting stronger.
Halifax's Boyle, who was entering her fourth season with the team, suffered her injury in one of the first practices of the season. The team had only just completed fitness testing.
"It was a five-on-five drill and I was just doing a layup," she said. "It's something I've done so many times, but that one time my leg just decided to go one way and my body went the other."
A kinesiology student, Boyle had a pretty good idea what happened.
"I knew something didn't feel quite right. Honestly, I felt my ligaments go. I knew right then something was pretty serious. I didn't know exactly that it was my ACL, but it turned out it was my ACL and my lateral meniscus that were torn."
Believed season was lost
In a flash, she figured her season was lost.
"That was tough. It didn't really hit me right away. It hit me a few days later when I couldn't really move and I knew it was pretty bad."
Boyle went to work strengthening her knee before her surgery, which was performed in late January. Normally the surgery could involve a recovery time of anywhere from 6-12 months, but her hard work allowed her to return to basketball by August.
"I never really had a thought that my knee wouldn't get back to where it was," she said. "I just always had the mindset that I would put in everything I could and I would get it back to what it was or even better than what it was.
"I didn't want to just come back to the player I was before, I wanted to come back better, stronger and faster. That was my mindset the whole time and I think that really helped motivate me."
Boyle put the injury out of her mind on her return to the floor, writing it off as a fluke. She knew her knee was stronger than ever.
A wing, she is averaging 8.7 points per game through her team's first seven conference games. But her 8.3 rebounds per game has her fourth among AUS women.
'It feels completely back to normal'
"Even now I don't even think about it," she said of the injury. "I have my brace, but it doesn't feel like I've had surgery. It feels completely back to normal."
Black said it was "heartbreaking" to tear her ACL in the first game of the pre-season last year. It was against Laval at the Helen Campbell Tournament in Fredericton.
She was on a fast break and heading to the basket for a left-handed layup. When she went to plant her left leg for takeoff the knee gave out. She got less than a minute on the court before the injury.
"I was so excited to be at UNB and it was crushed in my first game on the floor," said the guard from Miramichi, N.B. "It was a tough experience over the summer, too. It's just mentally and physically tough to come back from that.
"My surgery went well, but it's a matter of taking it slow and having lots of patience and not getting too frustrated with myself when I've had a bad day. Now it seems like it didn't really happen. I feel good."
She, too, did whatever she could to make her knee stronger before surgery. She had her operation 10 days before Boyle had hers.
Like Boyle, Black knew the injury was serious. "My first instinct was frustration. I knew I was going to be out for a couple of months if not more. That's what came into my head even before the pain."
Longer road for Black
She started in the weight room in the first months after surgery, but she didn't get into the gym until the summer. It wasn't until mid-October that she was ready to go full on.
"My confidence isn't where it used to be just with not having the ball in my hands as much as I would before. But physically I feel really good. My knee feels great. But it is just getting back to a basketball mindset and actually being in a game. It's much different than workouts. But it's coming."
Both players say they developed a gratitude they didn't have before.
Black said she took much of it for granted.
"I remember my first game back that I got a shift in our exhibition season this year, I came off the floor and I bawled my eyes out for at least 10 minutes. It's an exciting thing for sure. I don't complain too much anymore. I'm just excited to be on the floor playing basketball."
Boyle and Black were linked by their injuries and their rehabilitation.
"We would do workouts together and push each other," Black said. "We would almost compete with each other to see who could come back quicker. We'd try to make it interesting for each other. We definitely got closer last year considering the circumstances."
Speedy said losing both players so early last year was a blow. He expected the team to contend for a conference championship and missing two key pieces damaged those hopes.
But he's excited with their progress this season. He said both have strong leadership qualities.
"Jane is having a great season and I pray it continues for her," he said. "No one deserves it more. She graduated with her kinesiology degree and was a three-time academic all-Canadian, but did not want her career to end. She is back upgrading in a few areas academically and playing really well on the court.
"She is shooting the ball really well from the three-point line and is arguably the best rebounder for perimeter players in the AUS."
Speedy said Black is getting closer to her former self all the time.
"I am excited to see what she does in the second semester because I really believe she is ready to take off. Having Bailey play more like herself will definitely be a big boost for our team. I can see her playing some minutes at the point but also knocking down some threes from the shooting guard position."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter in Nova Scotia with more than 30 years covering university sports in the region. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)