A year ago, Eileen Fiore was on crutches.
She sometimes required assistance to move around. Performing simple tasks was painful.
Even months after her knee operation, she clung to rails, somewhat fearful of walking down stairs.
But never did the Spackenkill High School senior feel more helpless than while sitting in the stands of girls basketball games last season.
Fiore suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament during the 2015 Section 9 Class B girls soccer final, which caused her to miss the basketball and softball seasons. She underwent surgery in December of that year, so the bulk of her early rehabilitation took place during basketball season.
Crutches and all, she made her way to nine Spartans games in the regular season, then all of their contests in the playoffs as Spackenkill reached the Section 9 Class B final.
That was done out of a sense of duty. For the standout turned spectator, it was excruciating to watch.
“You know it’s unrealistic, but it’s killing you that you’re not part of it,” said Fiore, who has returned this season and regained her position as the starting small forward. “During the section final, we’re down and I can’t help but think, ‘I should’ve been out there. Maybe it would be different if I could contribute.'”
Those thoughts lingered, even as she took on physical therapy in the spring and summer last year, prepping for a return to soccer. That comeback was successful. Sporting a protective compression sleeve over her right knee, Fiore regained most of her skills as a scorer and led Spackenkill to a sixth consecutive section title in the fall.
The transition to basketball wasn’t quite as smooth.
She attended an open gym practice in September. This was during soccer season and Fiore hadn’t asked permission from soccer coach Mike Corbett, “but I was just anxious to get back on a court so I was going,” she said. And that 90-minute session offered a quick reminder of how far she had been set back.
“It was bad,” she said, shaking her head. “I was air-balling shots and kind of struggling just to run on the court.”
Hardwood a hindrance
An overlooked aspect of the return, she admitted, was the playing surface. Grass and turf fields, which yield a bit with each step, were much easier to navigate than a hardwood court.
“I’ve heard the lateral movement, slides on defense, and the back and forth running on a court can take a toll on the knees,” said Don Niese, the Spackenkill girls basketball coach. “The rehab and work she had done over the summer was to prepare for soccer. Transferring that to basketball isn’t the same.”
In the November basketball practices and during the first few games, Fiore said, her movement was “awkward” and her steps deliberate. “My body wasn’t doing what it used to,” she said.
As well, there was an adjustment to the contact of the sport — boxing out for rebounds and getting through screens was more difficult than it had ever been.
That certainly was a hindrance for Fiore, whose game was predicated on physicality. When healthy, the 5-foot-8 forward is an aggressive slasher on offense, unafraid of contact in the paint. Defensively, she “does all the dirty work,” Niese said, scrapping for rebounds and willing to dive for loose balls.
Progress has been gradual and she still is limited somewhat. Niese said Fiore will start each quarter but is substituted after four or five minutes. In recent weeks, Fiore said, she has “started to feel like myself again,” and her mobility has improved. Teammates said that by the third week of practice, the improvement became noticeable.
“Compared to where she was during open gym, she’s come a long way,” point guard Issy Herrera said. “Things are getting easier for her to do.”
Fiore hasn’t fully regained her quickness, but she has worked to develop a short jumper and, teammate Noelle Mancini said, “become a really good passer.” She still is a gritty defender and is the team’s vocal leader; one who isn’t hesitant to raise her voice in the locker room.
“She may not score the most points, but she’s giving maximum effort and bringing lots of energy,” Herrara said. “When she gets back to full strength and is totally comfortable, not worried about getting hurt again, it’ll be great.”
Fiore didn’t express to the team how she felt about being off the court last season, Niese said, “but you could see it and we empathized with her. I think she needed the validation of having the uniform on.”
She’s got that now. And Fiore’s progress will be a big factor down the stretch for the Spartans, whose expectations haven’t changed. Spackenkill did graduate star guard Nina Hartenfels, but most of the current roster was on the team last season and played a role.
Herrera is a quick, penetrating guard who can create off the dribble and shoot from outside. Despite being a sophomore, she has become the on-court leader.
Mancini, at power forward, is a shot-blocker and defensive force inside. A fourth-year member of the varsity team, she has begun to expand her offensive repertoire. Maddy McCall is an athletic, 5-foot-9 forward whose length, speed and hustle enable her to create havoc defensively.
The Spartans also added Maya-K Johnson, a transfer from Webutuck. The 5-foot-9 guard is versatile: able to shoot from the perimeter, post up smaller guards and get inside position for rebounds like a forward. Johnson moved to Poughkeepsie last summer then helped the Spartans volleyball team win a section title in the fall. Her hope, she said, is to do the same with the basketball team.
And for Fiore, her absence last year has made this season more meaningful.
“It’s made me appreciate it more,” she said. “Remembering what it was like a year ago, just watching and wishing I could be on the court, I love it even more now. I’m grateful for every second out there.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4