Maddie Nolan’s long road back

Sunday, March 15, 2020 - 6:20pm

Maddie Nolan recovered from injury to play her freshman year.

Maddie Nolan recovered from injury to play her freshman year. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

It was just an ordinary play.

Maddie Nolan, playing for her AAU team in mid-July after her junior year of high school, went up for a layup. But the result was anything but ordinary.

On the way up, Maddie made contact with a defender, causing her to land awkwardly on her left leg. She immediately went down in pain, the possibility of an ACL tear running through her mind.

Maddie’s mother, Kris, viewing the play from the stands, saw it a little differently. Her first thought was an ankle injury, possibly a sprain. Something not too serious. But when she saw that Maddie couldn’t get up on her own, couldn’t put any weight on her leg, she knew it was worse. Much worse.

The Nolans immediately got in their car and drove seven hours from Kansas City to Zionsville, Indiana their hometown fearing the worst. Maddie’s uncle, a doctor, helped her get an MRI immediately when they got back.

The initial diagnosis was a torn popliteus tendon, which would keep Maddie out six to eight weeks. It was definitely a setback, but she was relieved. She would still be able to play her senior season of high school.

But because it was such an uncommon injury, doctors continued to re-evaluate it. And when they did, they found that Maddie was missing a chunk of cartilage in her knee — a microfracture — which could keep her out anywhere between six and 18 months, depending on the procedure.

“I cried,” Maddie said. “You miss your senior season. You miss playing with all the kids you’ve grown up with. It was really tough.”

Added Kris: “(It was) like somebody had sucker punched me right in the stomach. … Just knowing that she wouldn’t be able to play her senior year, because she loved her high school teammates so much, was probably even more heartbreaking.”

***

From a young age, Kris and Henry — Maddie’s father — knew that Maddie was driven.

When she was five, she played on a co-ed youth soccer team. She was never afraid to take down the boys and do whatever it took to score.

“She was a pretty intense little kid,” Kris said.

But she was always destined to play basketball. Both her parents coached high school basketball and Kris played at New Mexico State, where she graduated as the all-time leading scorer. Dinners were filled with conversations about plays and days were filled either in the gym or watching basketball on TV.

Kris knew that Maddie could be something special since sixth grade, but it wasn’t until eighth grade Maddie started to put the work in.

Zionsville hadn’t been a powerhouse in girls basketball for a long time — it was long since Kris played there and set the all-time scoring record. When Maddie was in eighth grade, the team won just four games. But Maddie wanted to change that.

“Maddie’s class came in and they were told, ‘Oh, you guys will never amount to anything. Nobody wants to come to girls games,’ ” Kris said. “And Maddie and her teammates, her class, are just like ‘OK, watch us.’ ”

Maddie knew freshman year would be a challenge. For the first time in her life, she was playing against players four years older than her, who were bigger and stronger. But Maddie saw the potential the team had and knew her class could change the reputation of Zionsville girls basketball. She spent hours in the gym after practices putting up shots. On Sundays, she took Henry’s key to the school and shot for hours on end.

Maddie earned a starting spot her freshman year and led Zionsville to its first section title in 20 years. Her sophomore year, Zionsville won the section again.

By the time her junior year came around, the college offers started coming in. Maddie had interest from many power conference schools, including Michigan. Her dream of playing at one looked like it would become a reality.

All the while, Maddie was playing the best basketball of her life. She averaged 21.5 points per game and broke Kris’s Zionsville all-time scoring record as it made a run to the state championship game. Maddie was named to the Indiana all-state team. Her basketball career looked as promising as ever.

But then came that dreaded July day.

***

When Maddie heard the six to 18 month timetable, her first thought was, Six months and I’m playing again.

She counted out the days. Six months would allow her to return for her final regular season high school game. There was no doubt in her mind she would be back for that game. But those six months were difficult.

The phone stopped ringing. Schools stopped showing interest. Maddie didn’t have many options left, and committed to Miami (OH). She wouldn’t get to play at a power conference school.

“She wanted to be on the big stage,” Kris said. “That was her goal, and when she got hurt, there were just a handful of schools that stuck with her. So seeing that dream, at that time, was not going to be realized was hard. 

“We just kept saying, ‘Look, you still get to play basketball. There are a lot of kids who don’t and who won’t be able to come back from something like this or get a worse diagnosis than you had.’ ”

Maddie started physical therapy a month after her surgery, but she couldn’t do much — she would still be on crutches for another month. In her first few sessions, she was extremely limited. 

“For the first couple times I would literally sit on a table, do heel slides, trying to see how far I could bring up my leg, just kind of flexing my quad, getting those muscles back,” Maddie said “So it was very limited.”

All she wanted to do was get back to playing basketball, but for the first few months of her rehab she had to essentially re-learn how to use her leg. But once she was allowed to put weight on it and stop using crutches — about two-and-a-half months after her surgery — the road back became a little bit clearer. Maddie started seeing a sport-specific trainer to begin basketball activities, in addition to her physical therapist.

Once she got back to basketball, as limited as it was, Maddie was more motivated than ever to make it back in six months. When her high school season started, and for the first time ever she had to watch from the bench, it grew even more. There was no doubt in her mind she would play another high school game.

And when that doctors appointment finally came, exactly six months after her surgery, Maddie finally heard the words she had waited so long to hear. She was cleared to play basketball again.

A couple days later, midway through the first quarter of Zionsville’s final regular season game, Maddie checked in. She didn’t play much. She limped a lot. She was nowhere near the dominant player she had been her junior year. But Maddie was just happy to be back.

“The smile on her face when she went into the game midway through the first quarter, that smile could light up a dark room,” Kris said.

Adrenaline got Maddie through that first game. But for Kris, it was the most stressed she had ever been watching from the sidelines.

“I could hardly watch that game,” Kris said. “Every time she fell down, or drove to the basket, I’m covering my eyes. It was nerve racking.”

Maddie played in four more games her senior year, feeling pain and limping in every one. Getting to finish out her high school career on the court was worth it, and Maddie was excited to get the chance to truly return to full strength at Miami (OH).

But in April, a coaching change at Miami allowed Maddie to re-open her recruitment. And when she did, her dream of playing at a power conference school came back as Michigan re-entered the fold. While Maddie wanted to commit, she was concerned that when she got to campus her knee wouldn’t be fully healed and she wouldn’t be able to play at that level.

“She was still rehabbing and still working on strength,” Kris said. “And (Michigan coach) Kim (Barnes Arico) just believed in her. Kim had seen her, knew what she was capable of doing.”

Maddie committed to Michigan in May.

Before she got to Ann Arbor, Maddie was selected to play on the Indiana All-Star team in June — her first game action in three months. In that time, her knee hadn’t gotten much better. She still felt pain. She still limped.

“Obviously I was playing,” Nolan said. “But I didn’t feel like it was the same.”

So when Maddie arrived in Ann Arbor weeks later, there were concerns as to whether she would ever be able to contribute at the college level. She couldn’t practice fully from the start. She didn’t do all of the workouts and running, and sometimes she didn’t practice at all if her knee was hurting too much.

To alleviate the pain and stabilize her knee when she played, the training staff gave Maddie a bulky knee brace, which added about an inch on the side of her leg. She had to learn how to run with the brace on and how to dribble without dribbling off the brace.

Despite all the obstacles, Maddie got to work. When she didn’t practice, she biked or ran on an Ultra-G treadmill. After practice, she worked to strengthen her leg. Her thigh grew so much over the summer that she had to get a new knee brace.

“I got a lot more muscular, which I think helped with the pounding not as much,” Maddie said. “It’s more muscle around my leg so it doesn’t hurt as much when I step.”

Even though Maddie saw major improvement over the summer, by the time the season started she was still behind the rest of the team. Early in the season, she played sparingly, typically only in blowouts.

But as the season progressed, Maddie showed more and more in practice, and she impressed. By the time senior forward Kayla Robbins suffered a season-ending torn ACL on Jan. 19, Maddie had earned enough trust from the coaching staff to take some of her minutes.

“She was kind of behind everyone just because she wasn’t out there, and we didn’t really have an opportunity to see her game and see what she was capable of doing,” Barnes Arico said. “But it was funny because then when she started to get out there, little by little I’m like, ‘Golly, Maddie’s doing a good job. Golly, Maddie’s doing a good job.’ And it was quiet. It was a quiet way about her that she continued to impress.

“She just always seems to be in the right place. She doesn’t get sped up. For a young kid, for a freshman, her understanding of the game is incredible. She handles pressure well.”

And when starting sophomore guard Danielle Rauch broke her hand in practice the day before a Feb. 6 game against Purdue, it was Maddie who Barnes Arico called upon to fill her spot.

But when Maddie told her parents earlier that day she might be starting, they didn’t really believe it. They were headed to the airport, about to get on a plane to El Paso for Kris’s college reunion. 

And when they got off the plane an hour before the game started and saw that it was true, that Maddie really was starting, everything else they had planned had to wait.

“I’ve got my phone pulled up, we’ve got it ready to go,” Kris said. “So we’re watching the game on the drive to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and then we check into the hotel and I’m like, ‘We can’t eat or anything until we watch this.’ ”

Maddie played 29 minutes that game and scored two points. For her first few starts, that was the norm — she wasn’t an offensive focal point. But over time, Maddie gained confidence, and made more and more of an impact. 

Like in a Feb. 27 win against Penn State, when she hit two consecutive 3-pointers to put the game out of reach. Or against Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, when she scored five points in two minutes to break a tie and give Michigan a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Or the next day against No. 11 Northwestern, when her 10 second-half points led the Wolverines to their biggest victory of the season.

“She’s become an offensive threat,” junior forward Hailey Brown said after the Northwestern game. “You have to guard her. She can take it off the bounce, she kind of does everything. … She’s a large defensive presence as well. She’s definitely a strength in our team and opponents have to guard her.”

Maddie may never regain the same speed or explosiveness that she had before. She still has to wear the bulky brace. She has to go through intensive preparation before each game just to be able to play, including cutting off 80 percent of the blood flow to her leg and doing leg presses to strengthen it.

But to Maddie, it’s all worth it. 

She may never be the most talented player on the team. She may never get back to her pre-injury form. But it’s becoming harder and harder to see a future for Michigan in which she isn’t a key asset.

And if you told her that less than two years ago, she would feel lucky.

“When she takes time to reflect on what her journey has been, I think she’s just very thankful for the opportunities that she’s been given,” Kris said. “... It just amazes me what she’s done. When Dr. Miller told her an ACL tear would have been better — you hear that and you’re like, ‘What did you just say?’ — than to have this injury. 

“It’s a chip on her shoulder. That’s how she rolls.”