Cedarville University’s Abby Wolford drives to the basket during a 76-60 victory over visiting Hillsdale (Mich.) on Nov. 29, 2018. SCOTT HUCK/CEDARVILLE UNIVERSITY

College basketball: Knee injuries strengthen Wolford’s spiritual road at Cedarville

CEDARVILLE — Her journey has been long and unconventional and painful, so when talk of positives begins, Abby Wolford is happy to point them out.

“My right knee,” she said, “is great.”

Wolford smiles because more times than not, that’s simply what she does. Negativity isn’t her thing.

It could have been, and there were times when it couldn’t be avoided. Yet she’s come far enough physically and spiritually to realize that being an optimist is a better way to live.

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Wolford is a 2014 graduate of Cincinnati Christian School and a redshirt senior captain with the Cedarville University women’s basketball program.

The fact that she’s in the midst of a solid year on the court is a testament to perseverance. Having played her first two years with the Yellow Jackets, Wolford missed the last two seasons after enduring three surgeries on her left knee.

“I don’t even know how to explain how I feel,” Wolford said. “I really didn’t think mentally I could do this. It was day by day, year by year, and I honest-to-goodness don’t think I could’ve done it anywhere else besides with the teammates I had, the coaches I had and this atmosphere. I feel like all of this has made me a better person.”

A promising start, then …

Wolford came out of Cincinnati Christian as a 1,000-point scorer and found Cedarville to be an easy collegiate choice. It’s a small Baptist school located about nine miles northeast of Xenia. The Yellow Jackets play at the NCAA Division II level while also being a part of the National Christian College Athletic Association.

Her CCS coach, Paul Owens, encouraged her to take a serious look at Cedarville. She loved the coaches and the atmosphere and was committed throughout her senior year at Cincinnati Christian.

Kari Hoffman was an assistant coach for the Yellow Jackets and recruited Wolford. Today, Hoffman is in her third season as the head coach.

Cedarville University redshirt senior Abby Wolford, a Cincinnati Christian School graduate, talks about her collegiate experience this week on campus in Cedarville.

“I just felt peace about coming here,” Wolford said. “I knew I wanted a Christian atmosphere with my coaches because they’re so influential in players’ lives. I’m very close to my family, so I wanted to be local. With a lot of D-I schools, you spend your whole summer on campus. I wanted to spend my summer with my family.”

She was a backup point guard as a freshman, playing in every game and and averaging eight points. She was the starting point guard as a sophomore, ranking second on the team in scoring (12.1).

Wolford was set to be Cedarville’s go-to player as a junior when fate stepped in.

The Yellow Jackets were hosting Walsh for their final scrimmage. Wolford clearly remembers what happened.

“There were about three minutes left in the fourth quarter,” she said. “I got a steal on the left baseline of the opposite court, and I was going full speed for a fast-break layup. The defender came to run through and try to strip the ball, so I did like a 1-2 step, and on my first step, it felt like someone shot my knee.

“I heard it, I felt it. That’s the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life. My trainer came over and was taking my knee pad off. I thought it was going to look crazy because it felt like my knee popped out of the back of my leg. I hate thinking about it. I get kind of the heebie-jeebies just thinking back to it.

“I got an MRI that next morning and the results before practice. I remember Coach Hoffman walking in with our trainer. They had gotten the results, and just by Coach’s face I knew it wasn’t good. I just remember starting to cry and them telling me I had torn my ACL and both meniscus. I was just a little shocked. I was so excited to start playing under Coach Hoffman.”

That’s how 2016-17 became a redshirt season for Wolford. She underwent surgery two weeks later and started the comeback process.

It seemed to go smoothly — or as smoothly as laborious rehab can go — and she was cleared to return the following June. Wolford was eager to do some summer-camp work and get back to playing again with a brace on her left knee.

“I got to play one open gym with my team,” she said. “Then the next open gym, I was running and turned to get a pass and felt my knee pop. I subbed myself out, and I’m trying not to freak out. They said I’d have scar tissue popping all the time, so I’m like, ‘You’re fine.’ I jogged a little bit, went back in and couldn’t run. I mean, I couldn’t sprint up and down the floor. That’s when I just left and went to the trainer.

“My doctor said my meniscus was definitely torn, and they were worried about my ACL. I was kind of crushed. So I had the meniscus surgery, and he said the ACL was very loose. I remember him talking about the integrity of the ACL and how it would be able to handle collegiate-level basketball. I was like, ‘Well, I’m playing, so if I can’t handle it, we’ll do something about it.’ ”

Wolford remained confident she would be able to play in the 2017-18 season. The preseason came … and problems returned.

“There were days when it was so painful to run and my knee just got huge,” she said. “It was hard for me to walk to class. I remember sitting with my trainer and she’s like, ‘You can’t play or practice with that much swelling. I can’t let you.’ I get another MRI and a second opinion, and they’re like, ‘Your ACL’s shot.’ I was really frustrated by the process and then got told I needed ACL surgery, and that was once again like a week before our first game.

“So I had the third surgery, and the doctor’s words were my ACL was hanging on by a thread. It was basically torn all the way through, but like one little fragment was holding on for dear life. So it was definitely the right call to have the surgery. I didn’t have another option.”

The surgery was performed just over a year ago on Dec. 20. She got cleared this fall and once again started to go through the preseason. This time, the knee held up.

What wasn’t as solid was Wolford’s belief that she could return to being the player she once was.

“I never stepped on the court and was scared,” she said. “Some people really struggle with that, but I was never really scared to retear my ACL. I just had expectations for myself, but I had to be gracious and be like, ‘OK, your body hasn’t played this level of basketball in two full years. Give yourself a little time.’ I missed a ton of layups in that preseason. I had a lot of rust to get off.”

The progress Wolford has made since then has been remarkable. She calls the brace on her knee “very annoying,” but knows it’s a necessary evil.

Wolford is Cedarville’s No. 3 scorer (11.3) this year. She’s shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 48 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the foul line.

“Just seeing her succeed has been so enjoyable for me,” Hoffman said. “She has been the leader on our team, the toughest player on our team. The way she communicates with others, her leadership, she’s absolutely been the cornerstone of the spiritual maturity of our team. I’m very thankful for that.”

Wolford has also had to change her mind-set position-wise. The Yellow Jackets are a guard-heavy team, so Hoffman has moved her into a forward position — despite her 5-foot-7 frame — at the defensive end of the floor.

Cedarville University’s Abby Wolford cuts through the Kentucky Wesleyan defense on her way to the basket Dec. 8, 2018, in Cedarville. The host Yellow Jackets won 89-78. SCOTT HUCK/CEDARVILLE UNIVERSITY

“She basically plays a guard position offensively and has the same power, the same speed that I remember her having as a sophomore,” Hoffman said. “But she ends up guarding a lot of the other teams’ post players. It’s gotten her in some foul trouble, but we’re working through that.”

Wolford conceded she may never feel totally comfortable as a forward, but she’s not about to complain. She also doesn’t say much when it comes to the discomfort in her left knee, even thought Hoffman is sure it hurts more than she lets on.

“My knee feels way better than I ever could have wished for, but yeah, it hurts,” Wolford admitted. “If it got to the point where I thought my play was being affected by pain, I would definitely tell the coaches. But it’s nothing I haven’t been able to ice through or push through.”

Even with all of her hard work, Wolford doesn’t really give herself credit for navigating through two years of rehab. She believes a higher power has been involved.

The power of faith

“This might sound like a cliche, but I see the Lord’s faithfulness in my journey,” Wolford said. “There were some dark days along the way and some days in the summer where I felt so unconfident, but I’ve been trusting the Lord. If He wants me to be as talented as I was, He’ll bring it to fruition. I honestly don’t feel like I can take credit because I prayed that I would just be able to be on the floor and He would use me however He liked.”

Hoffman isn’t surprised to hear Wolford talk like that. Cedarville’s student body is stocked with kids of faith.

“Everything is based around Christ here,” Hoffman said. “I think that is one reason why we are able to continue to be successful, because we have kids on our team who love the Lord and a coaching staff that wants to follow Christ. Everything plays a part in that … how you treat your coaches, how we treat our opponents, how we treat our players. All of that is based around the fact that we want to be representives of Christ.”

At Cedarville, students attend mandatory chapel five days a week at 10 a.m. That’s everybody, roughly 4,000 students. Sometimes it’s like a church service. Sometimes there are guest speakers with inspirational messages.

It’s all part of the university’s mission. Wolford admitted that some of her friends at other schools raise their eyebrows when they hear about daily chapel.

“It may not be your typical college experience,” Wolford said. “But in my opinion, it’s the better one.”

“We start our recruiting with, ‘What’s your faith background? Where do you go to church? You have to go to chapel five days a week. You get a Bible minor that’s five classes in your four years. Is that something you want?’ ” Hoffman said. “Most of the time we find players that really, really desire that, and that’s why they succeed here. They love where they’re at, they love the school, and it makes them play with a little bit more joy.”

Cedarville University redshirt senior Abby Wolford

Hoffman said Wolford has natural coaching ability and has learned a lot on the bench the last two years. Wolford said she didn’t grow up thinking about coaching, but it’s become something she wants to pursue.

“Abby’s a people person,” Hoffman said. “Everybody that meets her loves her. She draws people to herself.”

This is a program that’s been good for a long time. The Yellow Jackets haven’t had a losing season since 2000-01. They’re currently 11-3 and on top of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.

Wolford’s ACL stories aren’t necessarily unique at Cedarville. Hoffman said there are times when she’ll have five players on the floor who’ve gone through a combined seven ACL injuries.

Wolford will graduate in May with a degree in multi-age health and physical education. She’s already completed her student teaching at Cedarville High School.

With her basketball career winding down, Wolford is glad she put in the effort to get back on the court. She’s less hard on herself these days. However it all ends, there won’t be any regrets.

“I’m very thankful for how my parents raised me and the coaches I had that encouraged me,” Wolford said. “I’ve learned to control what you can control and the rest is just what happens.

“I love basketball, but I’m not obsessed with the game. I’ve become obsessed with what I learn in the game and how I’ve learned to worship the Lord in this talent that He’s given me. I’ve become obsessed with celebrating my teammates’ success and having fun with them and being part of a program that isn’t just about wins and losses.

“It’s been awesome. It’s been a crazy hard ride, but it’s been awesome.”

Wolford By The Numbers

Here are Abby Wolford’s career statistics with the Cedarville University women’s basketball team (through Friday):

Freshman (2014-15)

» Games Played: 31. Starts: 0. Points: 247 (8.0 average). Rebounds: 74 (2.4 average). Assists: 64 (2.1 average). Steals: 14 (0.5 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .401. 3-Point Percentage: .337. Free-Throw Percentage: .721

Sophomore (2015-16)

» Games Played: 28. Starts: 26. Points: 340 (12.1 average). Rebounds: 64 (2.3 average). Assists: 99 (3.5 average). Steals: 45 (1.6 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .348. 3-Point Percentage: .348. Free-Throw Percentage: .785

Redshirt Senior (2018-19)

» Games Played: 14. Starts: 14. Points: 158 (11.3 average). Rebounds: 51 (3.6 average). Assists: 20 (1.4 average). Steals: 8 (0.6 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .523. 3-Point Percentage: .480. Free-Throw Percentage: .800

Career Totals

» Games Played: 73. Starts: 40. Points: 745 (10.2 average). Rebounds: 189 (2.6 average). Assists: 183 (2.5 average). Steals: 67 (0.9 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .398. 3-Point Percentage: .365. Free-Throw Percentage: .761

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