OXON HILL, Md. – Cassie Ksiazek went up in traffic just 2:21 into Sunday’s early morning game, grabbed a rebound, drew contact and went to the line to hit two foul shots for JB Hoops.
Ksiazek received a pass on the wing and read a gap in the defense opening as a Brooklyn Saints player on the side of the lane turned her head. Ksiazek drove hard to the basket, took a hit and returned to the line for two more successful second-quarter free throws.
Good, aggressive moves in any circumstance, but those that players in the USJN 17U National Championships might be expected to make as they perform in front of college coaches and compete for national AAU honors.
For Ksiazek, however, starting her Sunday by making those fearless plays carried a bit more significance.
It was exactly a year ago, while playing for JB Hoops at the same event at the National Harbor just outside Washington, D.C. that Ksiazek’s AAU and high school careers, as well as her college hopes, all took a big hit.
“I was playing in a game and I got pushed from behind,” Ksiazek said. “It was a contact injury.”
One that Ksiazek and medical personnel originally did not think was too serious.
A sprained medial collateral ligament in her knee was the original hunch, but further diagnosis led to an MRI that revealed much more. A torn anterior cruciate ligament was discovered.
The ACL injury that has sidetracked so many top female athletes threw the development of Ksiazek’s game off schedule.
Rehabbing and attempting to continue her high school career on the damaged joint without a surgical repair was a consideration, but Ksiazek went ahead with a left knee reconstruction in which a graft of her own patellar tendon was used to replace the ACL.
“I want to play at the next level,” Ksiazek said. “It wasn’t really a choice for me.
“I really didn’t want to miss my junior year, but I’d rather stay healthy, play my senior year and play on in college.”
With the surgery decision made, the 17-year-old from South Abington Township began the long road of rehabilitation.
“I know of a lot of people who went through the surgery and came back stronger,” Ksiazek said. “But, when you get the news, it’s kind of defeating.
“You’re just scared about everything.”
Each step in the process required physical therapy, which can be demanding – and painful – with progress coming about slowly.
“It was kind of a little bit at a time,” Ksiazek said. “My first goal, was just get my knee bent; to get my full flexibility back. Then, I worked to jogging, sliding a little bit. I started doing the ladder.”
Basketball had to wait.
“It was a very slow process,” Ksiazek said, “but it all came together in the end.”
Ksiazek would not be returning with her Abington Heights team to pursue a repeat of the 2016 District 2 title that she was such a big part of at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township. While the Lady Comets reorganized into another championship team after a difficult start, she watched – and waited – doing her work away from the crowds.
“During the high school season, I started to be able to run up and down the court with the basketball, dribbling,” she said.
Eventually, Ksiazek was able to practice with JB Hoops at Backcourt Hoops in Scranton. She rejoined her teammates in game action for the first time May 23.
Fast forward two months.
Ksaizek was in the starting lineup for JB Hoops in the first three games at the National Championships, which she never got to complete a year ago. She even led the team in scoring in the second game with seven points, all in the first half to get JB Hoops ahead of Brooklyn, 17-13, in a game it eventually lost, 39-36.
That followed up a team-high three assists in Saturday’s opening, 53-44 win over Maryland Pride, but Ksiazek was just getting started.
By the time the day was over, Ksiazek was scoring points three at a time – by hitting from long distance and making another strong drive to the basket – in the final three minutes of JB Hoops’ second Sunday game. She was the driving force offensively in a comeback that erased an 11-point, second-half lead by pool leader and, up to that point, favorite Nike CyFair Shooters.
On the 3-pointer, Ksiazek went high to make an awkward catch while reaching over and around a defender. There was no hesitation, however, on the landing. She immediately reset and went up for the tying shot.
“She’s a great leader who understands what it takes to win and how to win,” JB Hoops coach John Bucci said. “Unfortunately, she lost her junior year, but she’s done everything she’s needed to do.”
Things are starting to look up on the basketball court for Ksiazek, but the 5-foot-11 off guard knows she is not where she would have been at this point. Not yet.
When she first returned to the court, Ksiazek was physically cleared to play, but did not feel as fast as she once was. All the shots she did not take while working on strengthening her leg instead of her game left her knowing the shot needed work.
“Slowly, but surely,” she said of progress. “It’s coming back. The first couple games were kind of rough, getting up and down the court at game speed.
“When I would shoot, my legs were not under me, but it’s coming back to me.”
It showed Sunday.
Ksiazek, who has always considered herself more of a defensive player, showed off the offensive skills she has been working on trying to add, particularly when she plays more away from the basket in the spring and summer.
On the anniversary of her injury, Ksiazek led JB Hoops in scoring in both games, finishing with 13 against CyFair, a tough opponent from Texas.
“Every time she walks on the floor, she’s getting better and better,” Bucci said. “I couldn’t be happier for her.”
Kziasek is down to her final two days playing for JB Hoops, but unlike last summer, she has a season of high school basketball ahead – her last at Abington Heights where she has spent more time as a frontcourt player while playing for one of District 2’s most successful programs.
Bucci, who coached the Lady Comets in Kziasek’s freshman year, knows what that could mean to the team.
“For the one year I was at Abington, Cassie Kziasek played for me,” Bucci said. “At the point where I inserted her in the starting lineup, we finally started to win some games.”
Being back on the court has also reinvigorated plans to play beyond that. As well as Ksiazek has played, those who assess her current abilities also can consider that she has had some recent time away from the game.
NCAA Division II programs have started joining the strong Division III teams that were already showing interest.
“Cassie is so solid,” Bucci said. “She just plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played and that’s why she’s such a recruitable player.
“ … The number-one problem is that she’s coming off the surgery, but I’ve been able to get some more people interested because they understand that injury.”
There is more basketball to be played and more improvement to be made, but on the anniversary of a date that she will probably not soon forget, there is also visible progress and the early rewards for putting in the work it took to return to the game she loves.
“I’ve been playing since I was 5,” Ksiazek said. “Just think, I’ve been off for almost a year. I’ve never been off for that long.”
The time away has helped her enjoy the time back on the court.
“Going through the surgery and the rehab, it was a lot harder than I initially thought,” Ksiazek said. “But, it’s all worth it, being back on the court after.”