Tuesday, March 13, 2012

SPORTS >> Morris bids adieu as champ

Leader sports editor

Six senior Lady Panthers won a state championship their last time on the court for Cabot High School. There was also a touching but bittersweet moment in the last minute of Cabot’s 51-41 win over Fort Smith Northisde when junior Lauren Morris checked into the game. It was her last game too. Injuries forced Morris’ playing days to an end about a month ago, but her team wasn’t about to let her miss the opportunity to get in the title game if at all possible.

Morris walked to center court and huddled with her teammates, then walked back towards the Cabot bench. She stood in front of coach Carla Crowder and watched as the last 41 seconds were played essentially four on five.

Some in the crowd were calling for Morris to enter the game, and it was in Crowder’s plan all along as long as the game made it possible.

“Bless her heart she’s been through so much,” Crowder said. “She’s such a great kid, and we all love her so much. She’s worked so hard and fought through so many injuries. We wanted her to have that and enjoy that moment in the championship game.”

Morris, who has been playing basketball competitively since nine years old, has blown out both her anterior cruciate ligaments in the last three years. She has had four surgeries and lost part of one meniscus tendon. Finally bone spurs in her femur, caught by arthroscopic surgery in February of this year, caused her doctor to advise her to give up basketball.

Morris tore the left ACL in January of 2009, the middle of her eighth-grade season. She had surgery to repair that knee and another cleanup surgery a month later. After about a year of physical therapy and rehabilitation, she began playing again.

Then in September of 2010, she tore her right ACL and had reconstructive surgery to repair that one. She began playing again in spring of 2011. She played AAU basketball all summer and played about two-and-a-half quarters a game in junior varsity this season. She was even beginning to see a few minutes of playing time in varsity games.

She had been a key player at Cabot Junior High North, along with classmates Jaylin Bridges and Elliot Taylor, who started for the Lady Panthers all season this year.

“I felt like I was right there, about to break through where my playing time would start to increase,” Morris said. “We have six seniors leaving so I was really looking forward to getting on the floor and making real progress and contributing to the team.”

Then, on Feb. 6, one knee gave out again in practice.

“It didn’t really feel like an ACL because I’d been through that, and I knew what that felt like,” Morris said. “But I’ve also been through enough to know when it’s bad. I just sort of knew this was bad.”

Morris was unable to walk off the floor unassisted.

Because of all the surgeries, an MRI wasn’t conclusive, but her doctor thought he spotted something wrong and wanted to scope the knee. That’s when the spurs were discovered.

“It’s difficult,” Morris said of stepping away from the game. “It’s just the smart thing to do. The doctor said if I keep playing, he can’t say when it will happen, but it will happen again. He said next time it could really cause some lifelong problems.”

The toughest thing for Morris were the comebacks. In a strange and retrospective way, she’s grateful for the second injury.

“Coming back from those injuries, nobody really understands it until you’ve done it,” Morris said. “Coming back the first time was rough. Physically but mentally too. When you get back out there, they say you’re afraid but I really wasn’t. Everybody else was. Every time I would fall or anything, they would all freak out. You’re really trying to work hard and everybody is so worried about you. It’s understandable, but it starts to get to you. This last time, my family and coaches and friends were all really on board with me. I feel like I gained that respect back.”

She knew she’d gained that respect when she was told to check in with seconds left in her final game.

“Coach Crowder just came up and said ‘if you want to go, go.’” Morris said. “I wanted people to know I wasn’t quitting. To be able to get out there one last time, to be made part of that, it was just a really big thing. It showed that people understood that. But mainly it showed that coach Crowder really cared, my team cared, coach (Charles) Ruple, all of them. Everyone in the stands wanted me to get that chance. It was a special thing.”