The lost year

April Sanchez returns after missing a year with ACL injury

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It's the kind of story that coaches use for motivation when their players are lacking it: A high school athlete blows out her knee and knows she's out of competition eight to 10 months. Yet, she still comes to practice every day, suits up to sit on the bench during games and often spends more time in the gym than the athletes who can play. She comes because she still wants to be a part of the team and support those who are healthy.

It's a lesson of dedication and selflessness.

It's the story of April Sanchez's past 12 months.

Her sophomore year at Moffat County High School, Sanchez was a starter in basketball and one of the first to come off the bench in volleyball. In track, she was less than six feet from qualifying for state in the discus.

She went into the summer before her junior year with big plans. She wanted to be a starting outside hitter in volleyball, starting forward in basketball and launch a state-qualifying throw in track.

At a June 2004 basketball tournament in Rangely, Sanchez pivoted, felt a tear and then excruciating pain in her right knee. Doctors found she had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the knee.

Sanchez had surgery the next week to replace the ruined ligament. The procedure involved removing part of her hamstring and placing it in her knee. The recovery time was eight to 10 months with full recovery expected in a year.

"I didn't think it was going to be as long of a recovery as everybody said until my first rehab," she said. "Then, when I unwrapped my knee, it was just a blob of flab. My leg just spread out and covered the table. I knew it was going to take a while."

As soon as Sanchez could "crutch myself around," she went to summer open gym for volleyball and told coach Becky Howlett the news. She also told Howlett she still wanted to be a part of the team.

"I told April this was the time that she could use to really learn the sport," Howlett said. "I encouraged her to watch and think outside the box. To learn to recognize where the holes on the court are that the other girls might not see from the court. The entire season she sat and truly watched."

The lost year

Sanchez attended every practice she could for volleyball. She would occasionally miss because of rehabilitation sessions at Craig Physical Therapy.

"I couldn't move much, so really, all I could do was hit the ball against the wall," she said. "Sometimes the managers would bump with me."

Her initial rehab consisted of hours on the stationary bike ("I hate the stationary bike," she said). Once some mobility returned, she would jump on a trampoline to improve balance.

"At first it took a lot of effort just to flex a tiny muscle," she said. "The first month was hard because I didn't see a lot of progress. It's like when you're in the weight room and you don't see the results until later. That's what the rehab was like."

The volleyball team struggled through a proverbial rebuilding season. Sanchez rode the bus, sat the bench and observed.

"I learned a lot from the coach's side of things," she said. "I did more listening than anything."

When basketball started, Sanchez was regaining mobility but was still relegated to the sideline.

"I shot a lot of free throws," she said. "I'll definitely be upset if I'm not better at free throws this year."

The basketball team had a record-breaking regular season and reached the Sweet 16 in the state playoffs.

She was cleared to play again by doctors the week of the Sweet 16 game.

"I just wanted to get on the court," she said. "I knew there was no chance unless we were winning huge, or getting beat big, and it didn't happen."

All she could do was offer her shoulder.

"I was in the locker room too," she said. "It was a hard feeling to be there but know I couldn't do anything to help on the court."

Basketball coach Craig Mortensen had times when he thought, "We could have used April." But mostly he was impressed with how she handled the injury.

"Most injured athletes start out with good intentions about coming to practice and being a part of the team, but they stop showing up eventually," he said. "April's dedication was exceptional and outstanding."

When track started, Sanchez was physically cleared to perform, but the mental hesitations were more cumbersome than the massive brace that had been on her knee.

"When track started, I was cleared but Rich (Sadvar of Craig Physical Therapy) was still working with me," she said. "It was scary at first."

Typically, the more advanced discus throwers use a spinning technique for maximum velocity. Sanchez spun as a sophomore, but she kept it simple at the first meets. Her distance was shorter, but she wanted to remain cautious. She spun in practice and toward the end of the season, she spun the final two meets but came up few short of her sophomore marks.

Summer's return

The 2005 summer basketball season marked Sanchez's return to the hardwood.

"Just stepping out on the court and starting like I did two years ago felt good," she said. "I thought, 'This is awesome.'"

Things go a little quicker now than she remembers. Players she started in front of have a year's experience behind them and are impressive to her.

"A lot of the girls have stepped it up so much," she said. "They got used to playing without me, and now we all have to readjust again."

As for returning to the infamous Rangely gym, Sanchez didn't have to because the varsity team didn't go to that tournament this year.

"We'll stay away from that court," she said.

The senior-to-be noticed that at times, she couldn't react as quickly as she used to. Players drove on her this summer that she could step in front of before.

It's going to take some time.

"I feel like I'm about back to where I left off my sophomore year," she said. "But it's my senior year, so I need to get to that level."

Mortensen said he saw two different Aprils during summer camp.

"There were times when she wouldn't think about things, and it would come naturally," he said. "There were also times when she would think too much and be hesitant."

Sanchez recognizes that.

"It's frustrating ... because I know I'm better," she said. "But right now, I'm not as quick as I used to be."

She'll have volleyball to help regain her speed.

Howlett has been encouraged by Sanchez's attitude.

"I talked to her a couple of weeks ago, and she has a great understanding of the game," she said. "It will be nice this year because she'll see things, and her peers will listen to her more than me because I'm kind of like the mother who keeps saying the same things over and over."

Senior year

Looking back Sanchez is thank--ful to her family and Craig Physical Therapy for all of the support. Looking forward, she has a sense of urgency.

"It's my senior year," she said. "It all hit me this summer that this is it and I want to do more."

In volleyball, she'll be at that outside hitter spot she aimed for a year ago. In basketball, she has been rotating in at forward and post. Even without the spin she was the best girls discus thrower last year.

Even if she isn't at the level she hopes, Sanchez knows she wants to be there. Even when she had a chance to not be there she was.

"You wonder what it's like not to have anything after school," she said. "But I couldn't stay away. The teams were too important."

Coaches, cut that quote out, copy it and blow it up. It might come in handy some day.

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