Through Agony, Comes Strength
ASHBURNHAM — Feb. 2, 2018.
The date will never leave Rachel Sinclair’s mind, and with good reason.
Two days before the New England Patriots were scheduled to face the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Sinclair and her Oakmont Regional girls’ basketball teammates made the drive to Hudson to take on the Hawks. The Spartans last season were just as good as they were this past winter, and they had designs on not only the Mid-Wach C crown, but the Central Mass. Division 3 final, as well.
But for Sinclair, things changed that night just to the south of Hudson’s downtown rotary.
“Kylie (Lison) had shot from the left elbow, and it missed. It hit the back of the rim and it went out to the opposite corner,” Sinclair recalled as she sat on the bleachers at North Middlesex Regional’s Schoppe Field on Wednesday afternoon. “I ran to go get it, and I stopped because a girl was sprinting full-speed and she was about to go out of bounds. So I stopped, and I felt a wobble and a shooting pain down my (right) leg. I collapsed and couldn’t get up.
“The referee was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I remember my teammates and coaches coming out, and I’ve never asked my mom to come out on the court or on the field. That was the one time — I knew something was wrong, and I needed my mom out there.”
Back on the Oakmont bench, Hudson’s trainer readied to give the Westminster native a look, saying he believed it was an injury to her right meniscus, or maybe her IT band.
“He said that (my recovery) would be six weeks, either way,” she said. “We thought, ‘OK, nothing major.’ He thought it could have been a sprain of some sort. I thought I could deal with it.”
The timing, of course, would be impeccable: Six weeks would knock her out of the remainder of the Spartan basketball season, but Sinclair would be able to try out for softball.
Softball is, without a doubt, Sinclair’s main sport of the two she plays for Oakmont.
“My first thought was softball. (Oakmont girls’ basketball coach Jeff) O’Neill knew that my first thought was softball. I was a catcher, and it was scary that I had something going on that I didn’t know what was going on in my knee,” she said. “I couldn’t put any pressure on it.
“My mom asked around for crutches. I had never had an injury like this before. It was wrapped with ice around it. It was the weirdest feeling; whenever I put pressure on it, it throbbed.”
Early the following week, Sinclair and her mom, Kat, went to see their primary care physician, looking for a referral.
“We had to rule out bone injuries — it wasn’t that,” Sinclair said. “If I had to, I could walk on it. It wasn’t the ideal situation. It hurt like crazy. That’s when I got the referral; a lot of my friends had gone to see Dr. (Brian) Bascone (at UMass Memorial). His name kept on coming up, and my mom wanted me to have the best of the best. We made the appointment as soon as possible, and he’s booked; he was also down with the Red Sox at spring training.
“I went in and saw the other doctor, and they thought it was potentially an ACL, MCL or PCL injury.”
And after leaving Oakmont’s game with Littleton the following week early to have an MRI, the Sinclairs received the diagnosis a few days later.
“They called back and left a message for my mom: It was a completely torn ACL and a partially torn meniscus,” Sinclair said. “She told me in the car and I broke down into tears; I was hyperventilating. I didn’t know what I was going to do. College softball has been my dream, and it felt like it was ripped away from me.
“I was given the option of stop playing basketball and strengthening it, and I could play softball in the spring — or I could get the surgery immediately and get going with (recovery). It was a tough decision because I wanted to play softball last year; I love the team, I loved all the girls. (Oakmont softball coach Randy) Jepson was unbelievably supportive and knew it meant a lot to me. I was still part of the team, I showed up to every game, every practice.”
“My first thought,” Jepson said, “was on the health and well-being of Rachel. Was she OK? How was she handling this emotionally and mentally? Those were my biggest concerns.”
Sinclair elected to have the surgery, and by the start of last summer, she began physical therapy. But the good thing about it all is that before she even had the surgery she was working on strengthening the knee, which now bears a four-inch scar right down the center.
“The PT was probably the hardest thing I have ever done; honestly, it was worse than the surgery,” she said. “I had to relearn how to walk even before I had the surgery. They wanted me to not be on crutches. Every day at basketball practice, I was strengthening, doing my planks.
“That summer, every day I was doing PT, and I slowly got to jog and sliding; I was doing these rigorous things I couldn’t do before the surgery. Looking back at it, that’s the proudest thing. ... I’m doing things that I couldn’t do before.”
She continued physical therapy work through the fall season — Sinclair does not play a fall sport for the Spartans — and returned to basketball the Monday after Thanksgiving.
“I learned so much about myself from basketball; I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t expecting to go out and have a strong season. I was expecting to be hesitant, which I was at first, but coach O’Neill and coach (Gary Kozlowski) pushed me to new limits. I ended up doing exactly that.”
Sinclair and Oakmont went on to the Central Mass. Division 3 semifinals, losing to Sutton for the second consecutive season.
But then it was softball season.
Jepson had Theresa Brouillet catch in Sinclair’s place as a freshman last year, and he had no qualms in keeping the sophomore behind the dish this spring.
“There was not one thought to have her catch, for two reasons: First and foremost the unbelievable job Theresa did as a freshman. And two, I wouldn’t even think of putting a kid’s knee through that kind of stress a few months after an ACL surgery,” Jepson said.
Instead, Jepson put Sinclair at third base. No problem there, since she played third for her summer traveling softball teams in the past.
“Rachel is a passionate, caring, kind and funny kid. She adds a lot of hard-nosed character to our team and also a lot of levity,” Jepson said. “She made the transition like the athlete and character kid she is: like a champ.”
And as her senior season — and her interscholastic career — inches toward its close (she was hitting .441 entering Friday afternoon’s twin bill with Groton-Dunstable Regional), Sinclair says that she will play third base and catch at Westfield State University for the next four years.
In looking back, the experience, though harrowing, taught Sinclair plenty — especially about herself.
“I learned I’m a lot stronger mentally and physically than I thought I was,” Sinclair said. “My support system is more important than I ever thought. My mom was my backbone the entire time. My best friends came and visited me. Three days after surgery, Kylie was in my room hanging out with me, making sure I was all right. My doctors were amazing.”
Regardless of how this softball season ends for the Spartans, Sinclair believes that it is “100 percent a successful season” for her personally, all thanks to her recovery — a process, like the date of her injury, she will never, ever forget.