MINNEAPOLIS – When Kayla Hirt stepped onto the elevated floor at Williams Arena Oct. 31 in Minnesota’s women’s basketball exhibition game against Concordia-St. Paul, the former Bemidji Lumberjack realized that she had finally accomplished one of her personal goals.
“It was crazy that, after two years away from basketball, I finally accomplished a dream to be back on the court and a dream of being back on the court as a Minnesota Gopher,” Hirt said.
Hirt celebrated her return to competitive basketball by scoring 10 points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing three assists and collecting two steals to help Minnesota thump Concordia-St. Paul 76-49 in the Gophers’ exhibition opener.
Minnesota went 2-0 in exhibition action and is 4-0 in regular-season games. So far in the regular season Hirt has played 78 minutes, has hit 12 of her 26 field goal attempts and has scored 24 points.
She also has 20 rebounds, three assists and three steals.
The statistics, however, mean little this early in the campaign. What is significant is the fact that Hirt actually is back on the court.
Prior to the start of her senior season at BHS in 2010 Hirt tore the anterior cruciate ligament of her left knee. The injury required season-ending surgery and Hirt spent her senior year rehabiltating the knee instead of playing volleyball and basketball for the Lumberjacks.
Prior to the injury Hirt had committed to the University of Minnesota basketball program and putting on the Gophers’ uniform provided the motivation to do what needed to be done in order to recover from the injury.
During the next year Hirt was committed to her cause and when the Gophers began their practice sessions in September of 2011 she was ready.
And then it happened again.
“One of our scout players drove and when I did the cross-over step I was moving fast and there must have been too much pressure on my right knee,” Hirt recalled. “I couldn’t believe that it happened again.”
The “it” was a complete tear of the ACL on her right knee. The tear was identical to the injury Hirt sustained to her left knee a year earlier and, once again, she was looking at a year of rehab instead of playing for the Gophers.
“It was tough emotionally to have to go through it all over again,” Hirt said of the surgery and the recovery process.
“To be honest, at times I almost lost motivation. The rehab is a long and a boring process but I had a goal to get back onto the court and I knew I couldn’t take the rehab lightly.”
By nature, Hirt never takes any challenge lightly. Her perseverance and her tenacity are what elevates Hirt from the average. And those qualities also enabled the former Lumberjack to overcome this latest setback.
“In rehab the first thing you do is to get the range of motion back,” Hirt said. “And each month you have something new to do, including muscle strengthening and regaining balance.
“You have to re-learn all of the little things that you never had to think about before. Things like walking, jumping, running and cutting.”
Hirt’s persistence was rewarded and when the Gophers began their practice sessions in September the red-shirt freshman was ready to show coach Pam Borton and her teammates that she was ready to contribute.
“Kayla is as amazing as any athlete I’ve been around in my 25 years of coaching,” Borton said. “Kayla is so mentally tough and resilient. She is still showing some rust but Kayla certainly is moving in the right direction.
“This is her first month as a college basketball player and all kids need to go through the stages of learning how to play at this level,” Borton continued. “With hard work and patience the best is yet to come for Kayla.”
Hirt has made progress since that first exhibition game against Concordia-St. Paul. In Sunday’s 77-60 victory over Maine Hirt played 19 minutes as a forward, scored 10 points and hit five of her 10 field goal attempts.
“We’re starting Kayla at forward so she can become comfortable with college basketball and get her confidence back,” Borton said. “The players earn their playing time and I think, down the road, Kayla is going to become a big part of our team.”
Although she always demands the best from herself, Hirt also knows that time is on her side.
“Things are starting to come back now but I’m still not where I was before the two surgeries,” Hirt said. “The first part of the season is for learning but I’m on schedule to be at my best by the start of the Big Ten season (Jan. 3 at Michigan State).”
By season’s end Hirt hopes to become one of the team’s leaders. Individually she also has set a high standard.
“My personal goal is to be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year,” she said. “That’s a lofty goal but it’s one I think I can accomplish.”
So does Borton.
“Freshman of the Year is a very realistic goal for Kayla,” the coach said. “She’s getting better every day. It’s a long season and sometimes kids want to have things right away but Kayla works hard every day and I think the sky is the limit for her.
“Freshman of the Year is very possible and in the long range I see Kayla becoming one of our ‘go-to’ players, a prolific scorer and one of the better players in the Big Ten.”
No matter what happens the rest of her career, Hirt and her teammates know that she is a winner. Coming back from one ACL surgery is tough. Bouncing back from two surgeries in as many years is unheard of.
“There is no easy road ahead after something like this and all you can do is keep pushing through the injury, no matter how hard it seems to be,” Hirt said.
“ACL surgery is not the end of the world. It may seem like it at the time but there are always people who have it worse.”