Junior McKenna Engler had the ball on a breakaway down the left side of the court. Metea Valley had just turned the ball over, and Engler had a clear path to the basket. She was outracing everybody.
She went in for the layup. That’s when she heard it.
Every athlete’s worst fear: her ACL was torn.
Ten months later, Engler is back on the court, playing at 100%, with only the scar on her knee as a trophy for her perseverance.
What Engler went through is the single scariest injury an athlete can go through.
“It was my biggest fear at the time,” Engler said. “In the moment, I was terrified and upset that I couldn’t finish that game or the season with the team.”
As Engler lay there, screaming out in pain on the floor of the Oswego gym, everyone in the gym held their breath for the then standout sophomore and starting point guard.
“She missed last summer with [the team] with a back injury, and had some other medical issues she was dealing with,” John Carlson, head coach for the girls’ varsity team, said. “To have all that happened, then have that injury happen is tough on her personally.”
Just about everyone in the gym at the time, including myself, was thinking the worst. Everyone knew, but no one wanted to say it. And no one did say anything. The first one to say those cursed words, “ACL tear,” was a doctor at the emergency room.
“I was kind of expecting it,” Engler said. “But, when they said it out loud, my heart just kind of dropped, and I was just in shock. This happened to me.’”
But she persevered. Through two surgeries and physical therapy four days a week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 3 p.m., you could find Engler putting work in, trying to get back on the court with her trainer.
“I started like a baby,” Engler said. “I learned how to walk; then I learned how to jog, then I learned how to run. It was like starting fresh.”
The therapy itself, at times, felt pointless, as Engler was forced to do things that she did with ease before the injury. Now she had to relearn them, which became frustrating for her.
“[I] had to walk from my heel to my toe,” Engler said. “I’m like, ‘what the heck I know to walk; I’ve walked 16 years of my life.’”
The process was long. And at times, it even felt like it was going nowhere.
“There were weeks, and there were days where I [thought] ‘How the hell am I going to get back on the court,’” Engler said. “‘This is going nowhere.’ I got down on myself. Holding onto the little things: ‘I walked an extra mile today,’ I think that I had to hold on to those a little bit more.”
Physical therapy is a grind. It’s mentally taxing, physically draining, and at times can be frustrating. However, Engler used her personality to persevere.
“She has a great open personality,” Carlson said. “She’s great to talk to, she’s silly, she’s funny, and she gets serious when she needs to.”
That seriousness came into play for Engler, who had to push through the negative thoughts that come with physical therapy.
“I overpowered those [bad thoughts],” Engler said. “I tried not to think of those negative things and just have a positive outlook on it.”
And after nine months, she was cleared to start activity. Engler didn’t miss a beat, jumping right back into the weight room with the team as if she was never injured.
“We took it kind of easy at the beginning,” Carlson said. “Once she got cleared to jog and do a little bit of lifting, she came to most of our preseason stuff. I think that helped her move forward a little bit for herself and made me a bit more comfortable [as a coach].”
But Engler was back. She was back on the basketball court. The place she loves the most. Her home away from home. And not long after, it was time to get back on to the court in live game action.
“It was bittersweet,” Engler said. “I was so excited.”
And the first home game back brought with it its own set of emotions.
“This is the court it happened. Oh, here we go again,” Engler said. “But I tried not to think about that. I tried to think about the game and visualizing not doing it again. It was terrifying.”
But all those thoughts that attempted Engler’s mind during her return to Oswego’s main gym, she shoved out, posting ten points to go along with eight rebounds and two assists in a win over Plainfield North.
“To get back in front of our fans and to be playing there for the first time since the injury was good for her,” Carlson said.
Engler’s journey from rock bottom as an athlete, to being 100% and playing at a high level was a long one, but it’s completed now, and she couldn’t be happier.
“I feel like sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit for [coming back],” Engler said. “I’m so happy and thankful to be back in time for the season, which I think is crazy.”