By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Back on Dec. 18, the Wildwood Catholic High School girls basketball team was in the throes of a battle with Middle Township, its biggest rival in the Cape-Atlantic United Conference, on the Crusaders’ home floor.
The bipartisan crowd cheered for every basket, cringed at every turnover and moaned at a few decisions made by the officials.
But then there was an awkward collision at midcourt and one of the players involved in it had trouble getting up.
The Sister Mary Ellen Ford Gymnasium immediately fell silent as Erin Connelly’s shrieks of pain were audible to all in attendance. As the athletic trainer, coaches and other staff members of Wildwood Catholic quickly tended to the fallen senior guard, quite a few people immediately made signs of the cross and sent prayers up to the heavens. Sensing the worst. tears filled many people’s eyes.
“I didn’t know then that it was that bad,” Connelly said following Wildwood Catholic’s first-round state playoff victory over Our Lady of Mercy Academy on Wednesday. “I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know how bad it was.”
It was bad. Erin Connelly’s senior season, the one she had so much been looking forward to, was over. She had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee.
“I was really heartbroken,” Connelly said, fighting off emotion while speaking about an injury that’s still fresh in her mind despite it occurring more than two months ago now. “I was missing my last basketball season and I know I’m not going to play basketball again. It’s been tough because I’ve been playing it for so long.”
Connelly has been a solid four-year varsity athlete at Wildwood Catholic. She’s never really been the best athlete on her team but the cross country, basketball and track teams have all benefitted from her talents, whether it’s been on the court or along the distance-running trail. She’s been an all-star at some level in every sport.
She’s set to attend Salisbury University in Maryland, where she plans to run cross country and compete in track.
She consistently placed among the top five finishers at many meets for the two-time CAL National Conference champion cross country team. On the basketball court, Connelly was a dependable player who could knock down an open shot, make the right pass, show a teammate where to go on the court.
And then she had it all taken away from her.
But Connelly didn’t want to stay away. Instead, despite being torn up inside, she put a smile on her face and showed up at many practices and all but one game. She missed that game only because it occurred one day after surgery to repair the ligament in late January.
She wanted to be there for her teammates and continue to show leadership.
“For a portion of time I was thinking about not coming back. At first I didn’t want to come back because I was so upset over what happened,” Connelly said. “But deep down inside, I knew I wanted to be here. I love the team, I love the coaches and I love everything around here. So I just wanted to be here.”
Connelly now sits on the bench and cheers during games. Offers encouraging words to teammates who need it. Tries to be a leader off the court. Displays unwavering loyalty.
“I just try to hype everybody up and be positive,” Connelly said. “If somebody’s down I try to talk to them. I try to be as much of a leader as I tried to be on the court.”
Connelly has missed some practices over the past month due to physical therapy sessions.
“I try to schedule my physical therapy on the days we have practice so I can be there for all the games,” she said.
Connelly said watching the games has been a bit therapeutic for her. She can engross herself in her teammates’ attempts to win games and, at least for a few fleeting moments, forget why she can’t be out there with them.
“It’s pretty hard to watch everybody out there and not be able to play she said. ”But it is what it is and there’s nothing I can do to change it. So I try to make the best of it. I really get into it when I’m watching.”
The injury changed Connelly’s role on the team. But it didn’t make her any less important.
“She sat on the bench next to coach Katie (Caruso) every game,” Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. “She’s really helped some of the younger players mature as the season’s gone on. We miss some of her senior leadership and overall experience on the floor. I think this team may have matured a little quicker had she been out there all year. But God has His plan and she had an unfortunate injury. But she’s trying to make the best of it and she has.
“I think it shows the character and team values that are instilled in her. It shows what kind of person Erin is and what kind of family she comes from and how great her parents (Tom and Liz) are. I think mostly it shows what kind of person Erin will continue to grow into as a young adult. I expect nothing but positive things from her in the future.”
Connelly will continue her rehabilitation through the spring, summer and fall and hopes to be able to compete in track at Salisbury as a freshman. She’s unsure at this point what she’ll study in college, although she said at this juncture she’s interested in a career in law enforcement.
The injury, Connelly said, has made her appreciate the opportunity to play sports. She’s certainly glad she’ll have to the chance to do so again in college.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned, basically, is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Connelly said. “A little setback is just going to mean a comeback in the long run.”