When Maddie Nolan arrived at Michigan as a freshman, still recovering from knee surgery, it was unclear if she would ever be able to overcome her injury. Over the past three seasons, however, she has brought clarity to that uncertainty.
And she’s done so by relentlessly working her way back.
Now a senior, Nolan has not only proved that she can play competitively at the Division I level, but demonstrated that she can do so in a starting role. In the process, she has molded herself into a key piece of the Wolverines’ rotation.
Reaching that level required fortitude and an unwavering work ethic, skills Nolan didn’t develop through the traditional route of practicing alongside her teammates. For any basketball player, transitioning to the collegiate level is an arduous task. For Nolan, who spent a significant amount of time off the court as a freshman, though, it was even more strenuous. Despite the adversity, she found her place within this team.
“I think it was really difficult my freshman year to come in,” Nolan said Tuesday at Michigan Media Day. “I wasn’t able to do all the practices or do all the stuff that the team was doing. So I felt almost a little distant from them.”
Despite the somewhat isolated starting point, Nolan developed qualities which have not only helped her fulfill her potential, but will also serve as key factors in the Wolverines’ upcoming season.
Already, Nolan is proving to her coach, her teammates and herself that with an expanded role, she can step up.
“(Nolan) is a player that we never thought was going to have the career that she has because she had such a significant injury in her knee, and early in her career the doctors said that she would never play at this level,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Oct. 12 at Big Ten Media Days. “So now to see her four years (later) being one of the toughest players on our team is really special to all of us, including Maddie.”
Nolan’s tedious journey back up to this level made her tough. It’s something the Wolverines need, especially with the departure of their leading scorer, forward Naz Hillmon. Nolan is more than just tough, though, she is also a threat on both ends of the court and will play a significant part in filling the hole left by Hillmon.
Nolan averaged 8.9 points — almost twice as many as the previous year — and 4.2 rebounds per game last season while playing in every game, 27 of which she started. Not only did her scoring increase, but her skills as a shooter expanded significantly. Her 40.5% shooting from three last season made her a clear threat on offense.
“I think (Nolan’s) one of the greatest shooters in the country and I think we’re gonna see that this year,” Barnes Arico said. “She really had games last year where she had seven threes in a game multiple times.”
Without Hillmon and her 21 points per game, Michigan needs to find ways to fill up the stat sheet in alternative ways. Nolan’s three-point shooting will need to be a stabilizing force for the Wolverines if they are to build upon last season’s success.
And scoring is just one of Nolan’s strengths.
“(Nolan) can really shoot the basketball exceptionally well, but she can (also) defend,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s big, she’s strong (and) she’s shown the ability to rebound the basketball.”
Nolan’s defensive prowess encapsulates her strength that, both physically and mentally, stems from her journey persevering past injury. While she’s fully healthy and no longer impacted by the knee injury that hindered her freshman year, her determination hasn’t regressed — it’s only become sharper with a palpable appreciation for being able to play.
“The season is long and I think sometimes it’s easy to get down on yourself, but I come in every day with an attitude of gratefulness,” Nolan said. “Just knowing that I could not be playing, I could not be here right now. So I think that’s what I try and take in for the season as a whole.”
It took toughness for Nolan to work her way to where she is now, but throughout it all, she remains grateful and optimistic. Now, she has the opportunity to step up and use her tenacity to help guide the Wolverines forward.