Release courtesy of Al King, Assistant Athletic Director, Media Relations, Ashland Univeristy
Ashland, Ohio -- In a court of law, it’s often said that a defendant, “Doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
On the basketball court, AU senior guard Jena Stutzman (Berlin, Ohio/Kent State) has been innocent of everything except scoring lots of points (16.2 ppg., last season) and logging lots of minutes (33.2 mpg., a year ago). Still, there are days when she feels like she doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Stutzman’s 2010-11 season was truncated by a knee injury. She was hurt on Jan. 19, 2011, in an 81-73 overtime loss to Findlay. Despite not playing in the final nine games of the season, Stutzman was named first team All-GLIAC. AU finished 18-9, 12-7 in Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play and narrowly missed out on the school’s third NCAA Division II playoff berth.
Stutzman had surgery for a torn ACL last spring. Since that time, she has spent every day trying to get her knee back to 100 percent. It’s been less than a year after her surgery and Stutzman has returned to the court. The Eagles are off to a 1-1 start. Stutzman has averaged 35.5 minutes per game and is producing 14.0 ppg.
“It’s going really well,” said the 5-7 Stutzman. “I love being back on the court. I’ve had some really good days and other days where it’s sore and swollen.”
“Even after last weekend, playing back to back games, she said it felt really good,” said AU head coach Sue Ramsey. “It’s just progress. The magic number is a year out. It happened in January. It hasn’t taken away from her God-given talent, her mental toughness, her knowledge of the game. She has accepted and embraced the assignment of being a team leader.”
Before she was hurt last season, Stutzman was AU’s leader on and off the court. Even though it was her first year on campus after transferring from Kent State, Stutzman quickly assimilated herself into every phase of the AU operation. Most of the players in the AU program are four-year players who come to campus as freshmen and work their way up the ladder. Because of her outside shooting, Stutzman was regarded as a player who could come in and immediately give the offense a facet it hadn’t had for several years. Her period of transition in learning the Ashland system and her teammates wasn’t long.
Now that process has been interrupted because most of Stutzman’s time recently has been spent getting her right knee back in shape. The first step of her recovery came at the end of February, 2011, when she would hobble onto the court and hoist shots.
“It was standstill shooting,” recalled Stutzman. “This summer I couldn’t really do anything. I started to do a little more when I got my brace in August. I did some light jogging.”
Everything that Stutzman did over the summer was closely monitored by AU athletic trainer Nikki Sefcik. Stutzman and the AU coaching staff meet constantly with Sefcik to monitor her progress and to check on any gains or setbacks. The rehabilitation program has included weights, drills and rest.
“She’s not a year out, post-op,” reminded Sefcik. “She’s right where she should be. We were in constant communication – every week – over the summer. She was given exercises to do and she did them on family vacations. She did them with her family.
“She’s full go,” Sefcik emphasized. “Every day she’s getting faster, getting stronger.”
While Stutzman’s knee rounds into form physically, her mind is also getting back into playing shape. One of the biggest challenges Stutzman faces is bouncing back mentally. As Sefcik puts it, Stutzman, “needs to trust it.”
“Right after surgery I had a hard time getting range of motion back,” Stutzman admitted. “Basketball-wise, it’s just the fear of not having my quickness back, not feeling the same way when I play. I’ve worked with Nikki a lot, she says it’s normal. She’s helped me a lot.”
“Most importantly she’s getting to trust her knee,” said Sefcik. “Most every athlete who’s had this goes through that coming back from injury.”
Stutzman will wear a brace on the knee for the rest of her career. For every concern she subtracts, she seems to add a piece of equipment.
“When I went to Kent State I started wearing ankle braces, I’d never worn them before,” sighed Stutzman. “This (brace) drives me crazy. But I’d feel weird now without it.”
“She had never been hurt before,” pointed out Sefcik, when asked about Stutzman’s concerns. “The brace is extra protection. She’ll have it all season.”
When Stutzman was injured, the Eagles were about to go on a run that would take them to the GLIAC Tournament championship game. A big reason the Eagles got into that position was due to Stutzman’s play. Without practice and games, she had a lot of time to think about what could have been. She did a magnificent job of playing cheerleader during Ashland’s late-season run, but watching the Eagles reel off win after win wasn’t easy.
“Right at first I asked, ‘Why?” said Stutzman. “I was having such a good year. I loved my teammates, I was happy. Then I realized I can come back from this. It’s happened to a lot of people, it can happen to anybody.”
“She’s had a great attitude,” reported Ramsey. “She’s approached this the same way she’s approached everything in her life. She goes hard and recognizes it for what it is, a challenge. It’s the competitor in her.”
That mindset could help the Eagles in a number of ways. Counting Stutzman, the Eagles have four players who are wrestling with some sort of knee injury. Stutzman can give that group guidance on several fronts. Then there’s the most recognizable part of this comeback to see – what Stutzman can bring to the court. Last Sunday (Nov. 13) against Indianapolis in the consolation game of the California (Pa.) Convocation Center Tipoff, Stutzman scored 18 points. She had 16 points in the second half, hitting four three-point field goals, as AU came from behind to win, 74-69.
“It was great to see,” said Ramsey. “The second half of the Indianapolis game her confidence was back.”
AU played two preseason games (against Toledo and IPFW) and there were times in those games when the AU coaching staff put a cap on Stutzman’s minutes. That was difficult for both coaches and Stutzman to accept. The Eagles are a different team with Stutzman on the court. Teaming Stutzman with 6-1 junior guard-forward Kari Daugherty (Fresno, Ohio/Dayton), a first-year transfer, gives the Eagles, potentially, one of the most talented tandems in the region. Daugherty had 22 points and 13 rebounds against Indianapolis and in the preseason game against IPFW, had 26 points and 17 rebounds. Yet those two have been on the court together for just four games.
“We’re still getting to know each other,” said Ramsey. “It’s Jena’s second year with this team, but it’s her team. Kari is getting used to playing with Jena. The pieces are there across the board. We’ll continue to get better.”
“I want to be the senior leader,” said Stutzman. “It was hard at first. The first few weeks I was back I felt like I was the slowest person ever. I lead by example, I’m not real vocal. Now, I feel normal.”