|Cam Haslam taking a layup to the basket was a common sight when he was D3hoops.com Rookie of the Year in 2016, but has hardly been seen since.
Chapman athletics photo by Larry Newton
By Ryan Scott
“In about ten minutes I went through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” remembers St. Thomas senior guard Bobbi Brendefur.
After 10 long months rehabbing an ACL tear which cost her entire sophomore season, she’d been cleared to practice for the first time.
“The surgeon came to St. Thomas, cleared me,” says Brendefur. “I went into the gym, did a little dynamic warmup and then re-tore it in the next drill. I went back into the training room and the surgeon was still there; that’s how quick it was.”
There’s not just a physical toll from major injury – in fact that’s typically not the worst part of being hurt. There’s a psychological process, committing mentally to the time and effort required to get back on the court, which is absolutely essential to any recovery.
|Bobbi Brendefur returned this season after back-to-back injuries of the same knee.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Says Brendefur, “The first thing I thought was, ‘Can I go through this process again?’”
Unbeknownst to her, halfway across the country, Chapman’s Cam Haslam was working through the same questions. The D3hoops.com Rookie of the Year and SCIAC Athlete of the Year as a freshman in 2015-16, Haslam lost his sophomore season to a second knee cartilage injury (he’d had a previous surgery in high school).
After a year of rehab, he wasn’t physically or mentally ready to return to the court and made the tough decision to sit out a second season.
“My body didn’t feel quite ready to go,” says Haslam, “Also, after everything I’d been through, I needed space to gain back that passion and desire.”
“It was important for him and us to know he was ready to play,” says Chapman assistant coach Dan Krikorian, who served as a key sounding board for Haslam during his absence, “It was a big year for him – how he sees life and his role – it was really important.”
College is a time for learning and growth; almost every student athlete is faced, at some point, with life after basketball. A major injury forces those conversations a little earlier for some. Just as no two injuries or athletes are the same, there’s no right answer to those questions. Brendefur and Haslam found very different paths back to basketball and learned very different lessons and about themselves and their futures.
“The longer I stayed away from basketball, the worse I felt,” says Brendefur, “I needed to be around the game. Basketball has been my whole life and I knew that if I gave up on it now, the pain and regret of quitting would be worse than physical therapy.”
Two years on the bench gave Brendefur a head start on the coaching career she envisions for herself – something St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn noticed right away. “As coaches we wanted to keep her connected. She came to all our practices; we’ve had her sitting amongst our coaches the last two years. Not only has she come back from injury, but she’s had two years of seeing it from a different perspective and now she’s using that experience and knowledge on the floor.”
Cleared to practice since October, Brendefur didn’t get into a game until Dec. 8, when she hit four of four 3-pointers, sending the crowd into a frenzy. “It was an unreal feeling,” says Brendefur. “I can’t even describe how great it felt just to be back on the floor.” She’s also humble, though, about her shooting success, adding, “None of the other teams knew who I was, so they couldn’t scout me.”
Sinn adds, “Not knowing when she’d be cleared for games, she had to practice with the second group, but that’s been phenomenal for our team because she’s showing that even if you’re not with the top players, you can still be a presence on the floor, you can still be a leader.”
“I’m so much smarter than I was before,” says Brendefur, “I credit that to watching my teammates and my coaches.” Time off the court has confirmed her desire to coach and be as close to the court as possible as long as she can, “[Coaching] is in the plans. Giving up on basketball just isn’t something I can do.”
For Haslam, though, giving up on basketball was a real possibility.
“Coming back was always in the back of my mind,” says Haslam, “But I wasn’t sure and I was ok with not playing. Basketball isn’t my whole life. It would be a choice to play; I didn’t need to do it. [The coaches] gave me space. There was no pressure that because I played really well I had to come back. They understood why I didn’t want to come back. They couldn’t have handled it any better.”
Ultimately, Haslam returned and he’s largely returned to form, leading the team in scoring once again and flirting with the mythic 50-40-90 shooting percentage line. Like Brendefur, though, it’s the larger personal growth that’s made the biggest impact.
Krikorian notes: “He’s always one of the hardest working guys on the floor, but he’s grown into his type of leadership — in the locker room and making sure we have great practices, taking the freshmen under his wing. He’s tremendous at that aspect. His coming back is even more fulfilling because he’s doing those things and bringing that to the table.”
Adds Haslam, “I don’t feel any pressure when I go out there anymore. It doesn’t matter how well I play; I’m just appreciative to be out there and to be around my teammates and be with the coaches again. I get to play the game I love.”
Both players experienced terrible lows. “Three or four months into my second rehab,” says Brendefur, “my knee wasn’t cooperating. It wouldn’t bend or straighten all the way. I started believing I’d never be able to play again.”
|In her return, Bobbi Brendefur went 4-for-4 from 3-point range for St. Thomas against Carleton.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
“There’s an emotional aspect that comes in getting something you love taken from you,” notes Haslam. “Looking back on it, those low moments were the moments I experienced the most growth. A lot of who I am was wrapped up in basketball. Being away, I had to figure out who I was outside of that. My faith was solidified and strengthened — who am I and what I believe in — that’s the centerpiece of my life more than before I was injured.”
Both players are committed to at least one more year of school and basketball for their respective teams, but they’re really just taking things a day at a time, knowing just how quickly life can change. Those lessons are important not just for them, but for the programs they help to lead.
“When players come out of high school,” says Sinn, “they play because they’ve always played. They haven’t thought much about why they play. Do I play for me? Do I play for others? Bobbi realized she had to do this because it helps her grow as a person.
“She’s become a really mature, tough-minded, relentless person, but she’s also learned how to be a serving leader, to give of herself to others. She learned how to have an impact not being on the floor.”
Everybody is trying to win games and no one wants to see players injured, but these kinds of stories, these growth experiences — the opportunity to see young athletes mature as people — is really what Division III basketball is all about.
Haslam and Brendefur have particularly noteworthy stories, but these kinds of things are happening everywhere, all across the country. And they’re the real reason we pay attention.