By GERARDO RECINO
Karissa Wiebalk didn’t use to take so many shots from beyond the arc, but the one she sunk on Dec. 20, 2016, was the start – or end – of a long journey.
It was 322 days earlier that the senior basketball player was on the floor of the court at Dougherty Valley High School for nearly 15 minutes. Pain caused her to black out, and the next two hours of that day went by with little to no recollection.
“I remember how it went in my mind. I had the ball, then I was going to cut, but coach Jason [Bautista] said someone stepped on my foot and I rotated my leg and then it popped,” Wiebalk recalled. “Next thing I know it went black, and then my parents were around me, my teammates and coach Jason.”
Things didn’t become fully clear for the 6-foot tall senior until she reached the hospital and saw a doctor. By that time it was clear that she had not only torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), but also broken her meniscus.
“No pain has ever compared to that,” Wiebalk said. “I couldn’t talk until I got to the doctor’s office.”
But while time stopped on that day, there was still a game to be played, and a season to be finished. This was the first time Bautista had to coach through an in-season ACL injury.
“One of the last things she said when she walked off the court was, ‘You guys better win this game,’” The second-year coach recollected.
It was too much for Alhambra to deal with that day, and they didn’t come back to win.
With their center and leading scorer out of the game, and out for the season, the Bulldogs had trouble rebounding.
“One of our first team meetings after (Wiebalk’s injury) happened, we said, ‘Now we’re going to have to rally. We have to play that much better basketball,” Bautista said. “She was motivating to us, because she was saying a week after it happened, ‘I’m going to be on the court this year.’”
The Lady Bulldogs and coach Bautista always kept Wiebalk in their plans for this season, which makes the developments of the current season all that much more satisfying. The team is riding high at 19-2 (as of Tribune deadline).
Wiebalk went through months of physical therapy to get prepared to compete, not just on the basketball team, but also for her fourth year of varsity volleyball. She even used the cupping technique that U.S. Olympian Michael Phelps popularized during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The technique has origins in ancient Chinese medicine, and in Wiebalk’s case was used to break up scar tissue.
Projections were all over the place for when she would be ready to play. At times it seemed like volleyball was not going to be out of question, and other times it seemed like even making it to basketball would be a stretch.
“I was determined to get back for basketball,” Wiebalk said. “My heart was always more in basketball and I would be more upset if I wasn’t back for basketball (rather than volleyball).”
She didn’t make it back for the volleyball season, but only missed about a third of the basketball season.
And with a support system like the one she has, you might even be shocked it took this long for Wiebalk to see the court.
When she’s talking about the people who made the unbearable rehabilitation passable, Karissa Wiebalk has a list of people that ranges from her parents, Jim and Mica, her girlfriend Cara, her grandfather Bill, to her teammates and coach. All of whom spent extended hours of time by her bedside when just getting out of bed was a chore.
“Since the beginning when it happened, [teammates] got me a card and wrote me a letter, and they hyped me up to get back on the court,” Wiebalk said. For many months she was unable to participate in full practice, but never made her feel isolated.
And when she finally got back on the court and hit that first shot, the noise that erupted from the modest crowd that showed up to watch the Lady Bulldogs beat De Anza 56-30, swelled to about triple its actual size.
“It’s definitely something I’ll remember forever, because it was such a long journey,” Wiebalk said. “I wanted to cry when I came off the bench. The first time I put on my basketball shoes, I cried. It was a very sweet moment for me. I couldn’t not smile.”
Even then, however, the moment the Lady Bulldog captain finally felt like she was back was in the game on Jan. 6, 2017, against the College Park Falcons. That was the first time she had forgotten she had ever even been hurt.
“It hit me. I’m back now,” Wiebalk said.