By MIKEY BARNES
It was the last game of summer league basketball, playing with a number of her future teammates. It was in that game, that then rising college freshman and current UMW junior Caitlin Jensen’s life changed.
Jensen went for an on-ball trap with a teammate in the last five minutes of the game. The opposing ball-handler skipped through the trap and headed towards the basket. Jensen went to stop the defender, stepped wrong and heard a pop. She felt no pain, but her leg went immediately numb as teammate Megan Green approached her to make sure she was okay.
“I just walked off the court,” Jensen said, “I had planned to ice it real quick and then just go back in the game.”
A few days following the game, there was no swelling and she was told it was surely not an ACL tear, but opted to go to a doctor a few days later anyways. It was then that the 18-year- old, just two weeks away from moving into her freshman dorm, received some of the toughest news of her life. “I hate to have to tell you this, but you have a torn ACL,” her doctor said. “There isn’t more damage to your knee, but we are going to have to do more MRI’s.”
While she was processing all of this, Jensen’s doctor remained very optimistic in her healing, though it struck Jensen, her season was likely over with an expected six-month recovery timetable. While the news upset and hurt her, Jensen’s mother cried more than she did, watching as her daughter’s season had come to an end before it even started.
Despite the bad news, Jensen and her mother acted fast, getting her scheduled for surgery as soon as possible, seeing as move-in was just around the corner. Jensen described everything as very much of a, “whirlwind process.”
Though the injury was devastating, there were a few bright spots, as Jensen described with a smile. Her family was very supportive and treated her to a number of, “nice dinners.” Jensen came to Mary Washington from Fairfax, VA, where she attended South Lakes High School and was a member of the varsity basketball program all four years. Outside of the high school season, she played for the PSPA Rams, for AAU.
Move-in day arrived and immediately Jensen felt love and support from people both on and off the court. Her roommate, fellow basketball player Taylor Barton helped her journey around campus and get from one place to another as she struggled on crutches for the first two weeks. Current senior, captain Breezi Comden, was also a very integral part of her adjustment.
She was always there offering to a lend hand. Jensen also received help from older teammates who had some similar experiences. Claire Haeuptle, now a UMW alumna, had ACL injuries in both of her legs, so she was knowledgeable and could relate to Jensen’s situation, as could Caitlin Ciniero, who had torn her meniscus in the past.
Due to NCAA rules and regulations, Jensen and the team had to be very careful so that she did not lose a year of eligibility. With that being so, the coaching staff kept Jensen close, making her the team manager, which allowed her to travel with the team to all games and be there for practices. So although Jensen was not on the active roster or able to play in the games, she was still considered an important member of the team, which teammate Kelsey Dean reiterated. When talking about the injury, Dean said, “it was important to let her know how valued she was on the team, especially when hurt, it is so easy to get discouraged.”
Dean soon realized what Jensen was going through. In the fifth game of the season, playing against Frostburg State, while on a fast break an opponent went through Dean to steal the ball and something “snapped.” She soon realized not long after that another member of the team had gone down with an ACL injury. The team then had two players grieving over injuries, but did not let their sorrows get the best of them as the two adopted the most optimistic outlooks.
“I would not have been able to handle it without Jensen,” Dean said, “she kept me from throwing a pity party for myself, she showed me all the positivity from being on the bench.” The two kept each other very much optimistic and grounded, despite Jensen being a couple months ahead in the recovery process. Jensen remained positive and upbeat, waiting on the season to come to an end so that she could play, but also enjoying watch the team being so successful.
Dean said she had not realized how hard it was on someone to tear their ACL, until she actually did it herself. “I didn’t realize all the tough things she was going through. I kind of looked over it because she handled it so gracefully, you never would have realized she was even hurting,” Dean said. This went to show the toughness Jensen demonstrated every day.
The end of February rolled around and that six-month time table given was finally up and was able to run and perform a number of the drills. With that being the case, the season was not over and she had to do all of her practices and getting back into the swing of things outside of practice so that there were no violations and she did not risk a year of eligibility. Jensen described this part of the season as ‘frustrating,’ stating that she was in limbo in that she wanted the season to end so she could finally get back out there but also did not, because they were playing so well and wanted them to keep winning.
Her time eventually came as the season for that UMW women’s basketball team ended in the CAC tournament. It was soon following the season’s end, as she got back into running and drills, that the six- month time table set, is surely not as long as it actually takes to get back into the full swing of things.
Her body was in a lot of pain after playing pickup and was not in the shape she thought she was, making it a lot longer process than anticipated.
The summer rolled around and Jensen was working on getting to where she wanted to be. Then preseason had started. It was the final day of preseason in a scrimmage, everything was going so well. “I had just run the best mile time I had all summer,” Jensen said, “I was finally back to where I wanted to be.”
It was in that last day of preseason, last day of pickup that something horrible happened, again. She drove to the basket, went up for a layup and came down with the feeling of four pops in her knee. She looked up with tears in her eyes to see Megan Green once again there ready to help her up and check on her. With some assistance, she walked off the court and to Ian Rogol,a UMW athletic trainer. Rogol initially examined her, stating that at first glance everything seems to be all right, but an MRI was in order and that she should get on that.
Accompanied by Barton, Dean and another teammate, Jensen went to get an MRI for the opposite knee. Through this process she stayed optimistic as she had been sprinting, jump roping, walking and everything seemed just about fine. Following the results of the MRI, the doctor returned to the room and said, “you are ACL deficient,” and by the look on Jensen’s face he assumed this was something she had already known.
She had torn her Meniscus in that knee. Jensen was taken back by these waves of emotions, describing it as “heartbreaking.” She was finally back to where she wanted to be, only to be blindsided yet again. “All that work down the drain,” Jensen said. Her teammates felt the blow as well.
“That corner had finally turned and to see that taken away so quickly was discouraging for everyone,” Dean said, “We saw her work so hard to get back to where she wanted to be and then the same thing happened again. We were all emotional for her, we all saw all the steps she did to get back.”
Jensen opted to head back home for the surgery to see the same knee doctor she had seen since she was 12-years- old. With the surgery, she was on bed rest, so she was forced to miss the first two scrimmages, but was able to return in time to travel with the team to their first game, which was “pretty rough emotionally,” according to Jensen.
The first injury was rough on Jensen, but nothing was like the second. She said she often thought to herself, “why am I doing this?” Constantly in pain as a lot of complications due to the surgery, she just could not get the pain to go away. She had to just sit by another season, as it seemed her dream of playing college basketball was slipping away.
She was forced to sit back and watch as yet another class came in and was able to put on that uniform and play, while she had still yet to get that experience, helping out on the sideline. Jensen described some days tougher than others, that some days would get complacent, but knew as a good teammate and friend, her optimism needed to be there. She continued to remain upbeat around her teammates as she was excited to see them be successful, but still struggled watch another season slip by.
It was not until talking with then assistant coach Lindsey Burke that things finally set in for Jensen and she realized she needed to put her mind to one thing and that was getting back to where she wanted to be. Burke, a former basketball player at Mercyhurst University, also tore her ACL and college, so she had an idea on what her player was going through. “She said to me, you can give up, or you can pick it up,” Jensen said. These words spoke to her, giving her that extra motivation she needed.
Jensen worked hard every single day to get back to where she wanted to be, to get back to where she was prior to these injuries. The time finally came. The first day of practice, there Caitlin Jensen was, throwing on that practice jersey for the first time.
“You don’t realize how much something means to you until you lose it and then lose it again,” Jensen said. She described the experience of being able to put that jersey on for the first time in full health as “jaw dropping.” That moment was outdone, as for the first time in her collegiate life, heard coach Deena Applebury say to her, “Jensen go in,” in that first scrimmage they played, she was on a high of emotion.
With a laugh, Jensen described her first surreal moment was when she got in that first game against Alvernia where she got her first collegiate offensive rebound, soon followed by her first collegiate foul. Jensen mentioned the coaching staff as a significant part of her working so hard to get to where she wanted to be. Coach Applebury tore her ACL as well in college and was able to give a lot of positive vibes and advice. The coaching staff continuously encouraged Jensen, despite her injuries and inability to play, to remain very much involved with the team and as an active member.
Fifth-year assistant, coach Cecil Kegans, has been alongside Jensen through this whole process, dating back to even recruitment out of high school. When describing this journey and where she has come from, Kegans said, “She has come a long way and really worked hard, not just on the court, but just watching on the sideline as well, learning the game.”
In seeing all that has transpired, Kegans has seen Jensen grow as not just a basketball player, but as a person and has the utmost confidence in her moving forward. “We know how hard she worked from her senior year of high school,” Kegans said. “I think she can overcome any obstacles in her life because these injuries, they can be lifelong lessons.”
The real peak of emotion came in the final two minutes of the game against conference foe, Frostburg State. With the ball, Jensen was fouled while the team was in bonus, sending her to the free throw line, setting her up for the opportunity to score her first college points. As she approached the free throw line, Jensen was overcome by a wave of emotions as she thought to herself, “this is it, this is it.”
As she shot the free throw, Jensen said she remembers thinking that the ball had bounced off the rim as high as possible, thinking it would never go in. Then, the sound of the ball falling through the net, Jensen could hear the bench erupting, as after two years of injuries, many tears, pain and sleepless nights, Caitlin Jensen had just scored her first collegiate point.
“When she scored her first point; Taylor, Breezi and I all looked at each other and had tears in our eyes. We got emotional because it had been such a long journey, to see that happen was so heartwarming,” Dean said. “It was a proud moment, like a proud mom moment. It was a physical representation of her overcoming all these obstacles and still going after her dream.”
Screams from the stands could even be heard, as a number of the fans had been there along the roller coaster journey that has been Caitlin Jensen’s basketball career. As she shot the second free throw, she did with a matter of ease, as she could hear from the bench coach Applebury say, “get in there.”
“Nothing compares to those first points, you dream of it as a kid and it finally comes true,” Jensen said. Another high of emotion had arisen.
Despite all that she has been through and overcome, when speaking to her teammates, coaching staff and friends, it cannot be reiterated enough what a positive person she has been throughout this roller coaster ride she has been on. Nothing but the most positive things were said about her on this journey and her strength and absolute love and passion for the game of basketball. When talking to Jensen, she never made it about herself. She made it known how significant her team has been throughout this. “When they say we were a family, we really are a family,” Jensen said.