VU WBB: Keeping them in the game

As the Vanderbilt women's team prepares for their NCAA tournament game on Sunday against Middle Tennessee, keeping the players able to play in games is more important than ever. VandyMania takes a look at how it's done.

Earlier this week Vanderbilt fans were probably startled to hear Head Coach Melanie Balcomb say in a radio interview that the team's leading scorer, Christina Foggie, has battled six different injuries over the course of this season.

Sure, fans know about the severe concussions that wrecked Foggie's freshman season last year. They also remember a scary moment in a game in late December when an apparent shoulder injury sent Foggie to the sidelines, resulting in several days of anxiety before the welcome news that the injury wasn't as serious as originally feared.

But the thought of additional injuries is hard to square with what fans saw on the court. Foggie played more than 30 minutes in every single game from that point onward and finished the season as the SEC's leading scorer, an accomplishment that contributed to her selection to the All-SEC First Team.

Injuries like hers are all too common in women's basketball. Season-ending injures like torn ACLs are usually reported to the media, but the multitude of day-to-day injuries are usually unknown unless a coach happens to mention in a press conference that a player has been missing practice time or a fan spots a protective boot in a team photo.

Handling those injuries, however, is a major factor for any basketball team still playing at this time of year. For example, earlier this week, #1-seeded Connecticut announced that Tiffany Hayes is suffering from a stress injury to an ankle, and a few days later #2-seeded Duke announced freshman phenom Elizabeth Williams will play in the NCAA tournament despite a stress fracture in her lower right leg.

All teams have to deal with this kind of injury, but for teams that are already short-handed, like Vanderbilt and Duke, keeping the players able to play in games becomes a crucial factor to the team's success.

At Vanderbilt, that responsibility falls primarily into the hands of two members of the team's support staff, Strength and Conditioning Coach Tasha Weddle and Athletic Trainer Michele Loftis.

Weddle is the first line of the defense. Her goal is to try to prevent and reduce injuries before they happen and to supervise the players in becoming sufficiently strong and conditioned to play at a high level for extended periods of time in games.

Her work for the season begins in the summer when the players arrive back on campus for summer school and workouts and continues through the fall and all of the basketball season.

Before this season began, Weddle introduced some changes into the team's warmup routine. Ever since last summer, exercises requiring yoga mats, lacrosse balls and foam rolls are part of warmups before every team activity.

"We're taking care of the soft tissue quality, the muscle tissue, and helping our ability to recover from practice to practice," Weddle says. "We go through mobility exercises because there are certain joints that we need to have mobile so that we don't have knee pain and back pain, and there are certain places that we want to activate because if something's not working right, then something else has to take over and that creates an overuse injury."

The players on the team use the same warmup routine six days a week. "We spend 20 minutes every day with the soft tissue mobility/activation and dynamic warmup that we do," says Weddle. "We've done that all summer long, all season long, every day, in the weight room, and in practice."

Despite her best efforts, however, injuries inevitably occur in the course of the long and grueling season of practices and games. Spotting and caring for those injuries is the responsibility of Athletic Trainer Michele Loftis. Many fans will recognize her because she's the first person on the court to go to the side of a player who is injured during the course of a game.

But those fortunately rare trips onto the court are only the tip of the iceberg of what she does. Before every practice and game, she arrives in the gym early to get the players ready to go. For all the players, that includes taping or bracing their ankle or in case of players with a history of ankle problems, both taping and bracing.

In addition, players that are dealing with injuries come to the training room for treatment before and after practice and games. On some days so many players crowd into the training room that they've nicknamed their trainer "Octoloftis" because she needs so many hands to take care of all the players that need attention.

After practice begins, Loftis says that her biggest role is to "recognize and refer." Signs of injury are rarely as dramatic as a player falling to the court in pain, and Loftis must spot and respond to more subtle signs of trouble. If a player is fidgeting with their feet, why are they doing it? Are their feet bothering them, or is the problem their shoes? Are they favoring an ankle, or making faces while they're running the court? It's up to Loftis to recognize the problem then figure out what to do about it.

"I have to recognize what's going on with them enough to know is it something that I can handle? Or is it something I need to refer to a doctor or do I need to go to a nurse?" she says. "Are they squinting, if they can't see, do we need to go get an eye exam? That's the kind of stuff that I have to be able to decipher and say, okay, is this something that we need to go see somebody else for."

Her other major responsibility during practice is to manage the on-court time of players playing through injuries. In an ideal world, the coaching staff would have every player available for every minute of every practice. But when players have injuries, they can benefit from being held out of parts of practice and ride a stationery bike on the sidelines rather going hard for the full practice.

"It's what I call a shell game," says Loftis. "One kid in, pull one out, move one in, pull one out, so I try to let them do as much practice as they can without doing too much that's going to make them worse for the next day."

So far Loftis' shell game seems to be working After a three-game losing streak in late January, Balcomb shortened her playing rotation to seven players. Since then, Vanderbilt has compiled an 8-4 record, and none of those seven players have missed a game.

"I think they've played the best they could through a lot of adversity," Balcomb said after her team's selection to the NCAA tournament. "Now we're as strong and confident as we've ever been right now . . . and healthy."

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The Athletic Training Room in the lower level of Memorial Gym is used by both the men's and women's teams. During the NCAA tournament this week, it will be shared by all the teams participating in the tournament.

Like all the players, Kady Schrann gets her ankles taped in the training room before every game and practice.

Players with a history of injuries, like Stephanie Holzer, have their ankles both taped and braced.

Freshman Maggie Morrison, who had surgery to repair the ACL she tore in December, does rehabilitation exercises in the training room while her teammates get ready for practice.

Players are out on the court 20 minutes before the official start of practice to do their warmup routines with Tash. Still in early stages of rehab, Maggie needs special attention. After practice begins, Tash works with her on the sidelines or takes her over to the weight room for lifting or conditioning.

Tash leads the warmup routines. Specific activities may vary, but it's the same 20-minute template, day after day after day.

Stephanie Holzer with her foam roll, yoga mat, and lacrosse ball.

The players have matching bags to carry the warmup paraphenalia with them wherever they go.

* * * * *

Photos copyright 2012 by Whitney D. for Recommended Stories

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