NEWARK – A torn ACL used to be an immediate death knell for a season.
For seniors, it meant the end of a career and possibly organized sports. It takes a lot more to keep down Kori Caughenbaugh.
Caughenbaugh has been on the athletic fields, courts or diamonds since she could walk, and the first letters she learned were probably “LV”. A knee injury during the winter threatened to rob her of her final month as a Licking Valley Panther.
“The doctor said (teammate Sierra McConnell and I) could play on it as long as we could take the pain and the uncomfortableness of it all of the time,” Caughenbaugh said. “In all reality, I just want to be with my teammates for my senior year and be able to finish it out with them.”
Many athletes are making the same decision. With the clock ticking, they decide to put off going under the knife as long as possible to milk the final days of their high school career.
The decision, however, is not without risk. Beyond the obvious pain that comes with a serious injury is the possibility to do more damage or dramatically increase the risk for serious problems down the road.
“Once you are tear your ACL, you are not going to tear it further because it is already gone. It is not functioning,” said Dr. Rod Comisar, an orthopedic surgeon for SportsMedicine GRANT & Orthopaedic Associates. “What you are trying to do is avoid secondary damage to meniscus cartilage or the joint cartilage. Both of the those things could start the cascade of arthritis if you have repeat injuries at a young age.”
Caughenbaugh is a three-sport star at Valley, playing soccer, basketball and softball. She certainly has received offers to play college softball, but long ago she made the decision to attend Central Ohio Technical College next fall and study architectural engineering.
Barker opted for surgery
The next level, however, is what drove Granville’s Abby Barker in a different direction. In December 2013, Barker injured her ACL during her junior basketball season. She made the decision to have surgery, less than a year after pitching the Blue Aces to the Division II state softball tournament.
“I knew I was going to play softball in college, so I had to have surgery right away,” said Barker, who admitted she might have attempted to play had it happened during her senior year.
“I wanted to continue playing, and it was really hard to miss my junior year of softball and not finishing out basketball, but I knew I had to.”
Barker was given a four-to-six month timetable for recovery. She attempted to get back on the diamond late in the 2014 season for the Blue Aces, but she instead waited the full six months and returned for part of the travel season.
Barker is now in an ACL prevention program through Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, and she signed to play at Elon University in November. She is healthy and back on the rubber, helping the Blue Aces into contention for a Licking County League title.
“I feel like I am so much stronger than I was before, and I have learned the right techniques for jumping and all of the stuff I didn’t know before my injury. I am not concerned about re-injuring it ever,” said Barker, who recently had 21 strikeouts in a 10-inning victory against Licking Heights. “My lower body is a pretty big part of my pitching. Because I hurt it in basketball, I don’t really think twice about it in softball.”
Blacksten had no easy choice
The decisions for Caughenbaugh and Barker were driven by circumstance. Newark Catholic senior Jill Blacksten, however, was caught between a rock and a hard place.
Blacksten signed in November to play basketball at Youngstown State. Early this past season, a teammate rolled up on her under the basket, and she tore her MCL.
While Blacksten missed just a few games and attempted to play through the injury, she later dislocated her kneecap and suffered a slight tear of her meniscus. Despite having a future in college basketball, unfinished business at NC influenced her decision as the Green Wave had been an eyelash from reaching the Division IV state tournament two consecutive seasons.
“The kid is only going to be in high school four years,” said Doug Blacksten, Jill’s father. “The timing of this last part was kind of heartbreaking. She wanted to accomplish some things as a team and some individual things she could have possibly reached, too. The state championship was the ultimate goal.”
Blacksten sat out the postseason until the second half of a district final win against Granville Christian. She then, despite being visibly slowed, had 19 points and eight rebounds in a loss to Worthington Christian the next round.
“It’s one thing to maybe give up possibly your college career, but to make it hard for you to walk when you’re 50 or something, as much as your kid may want to play, you don’t want your kid to have problems long term,” Doug Blacksten said. “Putting her in that very restrictive knee brace was probably the deciding factor. … It was going to slow her healing down, but the likelihood of her getting hurt any worse wouldn’t be any greater.”
Blacksten rolled the dice, and the result could be a late start to her college career. Doug Blacksten admitted the Youngstown State coaching staff was not thrilled with the idea of foregoing immediate surgery.
The future is cloudy
“We view the knee as a protector of the cartilage,” said Dr. Kevin Klingele, the Surgical Director of Sports Medicine and Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at Children’s Hospital. “To play on an ACL deficient knee where 70 percent of these kids already have a cartilage tear, I feel would be a mistake. It’s a risky thing to do or try, and for that reason, surgical intervention has become standard care for the younger athlete.”
Caughenbaugh’s injury came about a week after McConnell went down. McConnell, who had two previous ACL surgeries, also tried to play through hers, but she was injured further during Valley’s tournament loss to Johnstown and is missing her final softball season because of surgery.
Caughenbaugh, however, is at her familiar spot behind the plate. She is headed for another All-Ohio season, hitting over .600, though with less power than usual, and the Panthers are able to use a courtesy runner for her each time she reaches base because of being the catcher.
Playing sports is in Caughenbaugh’s DNA. Continuing to play was the decision now. Will she regret it down the road? She is willing to accept the consequences.
“My mom was pretty hesitant on it. She wasn’t really that for it and just doesn’t want to see anything else bad happen,” Caughenbaugh said. “It will probably be my last hurrah now.”