TOLONO — Joan Maxwell was well prepared for her senior season of basketball.
The Unity High athlete went through the summer conditioning and weightlifting sessions. She played in team camps and offseason leagues with the Rockets and — perhaps most important — made a favorable impression with coach Kelly Gallick.
“My expectation for Joan was to be our key defender,” Gallick said. “If we were to run a box-and-one, regardless of the size of the other kid, Joan would have been our go-to defender.
“With her quickness and athleticism, she was able to guard the ball better than anyone on our team. She had a great summer and really improved her offensive side of her game.”
Maxwell was anticipating her last high school season because it would be her first on the court with her sophomore sister, Rebecca.
Separated in age by 2 years, they never had the chance to be teammates in the past.
There were times in the preceding years that was OK. Whether it was sibling rivalry or whether it was early in their personal maturation process, being together wasn’t always a priority.
“My husband, Greg, and I have always allowed them to have their arguments and ‘sisterly’ fights, but in the end, we have always demanded they respect each other and always protect one another,” mother Deanna Maxwell said.
The message had gotten through. Joan Maxwell understood now, better than ever in her life.
“Mom always told us, ‘Joan and Rebecca, friends will come and go, but that sister of yours, she is forever going to be your sister. She is your friend for life. Do not ever forget that. No matter where you go in life, she is always going to be there, no matter what. You better treat her better than you do any of your friends.’
“I had never stopped looking forward to the day that Bec and I become inseparable. We have finally reached the day where we are sisters first, teammates and best friends. Becca and I have grown so close. We’ve both come to our senses that we are both way too much alike to not get along.”
Joan Maxwell was confident her final season of high school basketball was going to be as memorable as the opportunity she had during the summer to be in London for the Olympic Games.
Her season couldn’t have started better. In the Rockets’ opener, she made 6 of 10 shots from the field and led the team in scoring with 14 points. She also handed out six assists.
Sister Rebecca had a shining moment as well in the four-point loss at home to LeRoy. She made Unity’s only three-pointer.
“As Joan took the court that night, she had so much energy and enthusiasm, as did the rest of our team,” Gallick said. “She had a very strong game. I believe that game gave her a lot of confidence, as it should have, and was a great way to start her senior season.
“I’m sure the only thing that could have made it better was to get the win against LeRoy.”
Very true, Joan Maxwell confirmed.
“I did walk away from the game feeling pretty good,” she said, “but at the same time, a loss like that never settles well with me. My goal is never to be the high scorer. That has never in all my basketball years been a desire of mine.”
Though it was a first-game loss, there was no sense of despair or discouragement among the Unity players.
“I remember in the locker room after that game, one of us saying, ‘This is going to be a great season together, guys,’ ” Joan Maxwell said. “We believed that. It made us that much more anxious to go back out to our next game.
“I was certain this was going to be a favorable, memorable senior season. I was satisfied.”
Game 2 for the Rockets was scheduled for five days after the first one. It was a Nov. 20 road trip to Paris, on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving.
In a game where the teams traded leads, Joan Maxwell made her presence felt in the expected manner: on the defensive end.
“With 20 seconds left in the third quarter, I stole the ball and dribbled downcourt full speed,” she said.
She approached the basket from the right side but never got to shoot the ball. Before the third quarter ended, Joan Maxwell’s season — and quite possibly, her athletic career — had ended.
“She attempted a crossover dribble, and once she planted, she crumbled to the floor,” Deanna Maxwell said. “I have never heard her scream like that.”
Though Gallick doesn’t have a medical degree, she knew right away “it was serious,” she said.
“Over time, you get to know kids and understand their tolerance of pain. This wasn’t your typical tweaking of the ankle or hard hit to the floor.
“In addition, she is a kid that will want to go right back in. When she wasn’t mentioning it, I knew for sure something was hurt, and it wasn’t good.”
Unity assistant coach Dallas Fender carried the injured Rocket off the court.
“I was going so fast,” Joan Maxwell said, “that when I fell, I did a somersault. Boy, was that pop loud. Loud enough that a player exclaimed, ‘What was that?’ ”
As she sat in the bleachers for the game’s second half, Joan Maxwell was filled with hope and optimism.
“I suddenly felt fine,” she said. “The knee didn’t hurt. It was the weirdest thing. It was really like nothing had happened.”
The Maxwell family did more than watch the remainder of the game, which Unity lost by a point.
“We are a family of faith, and Joan understands the power of prayer,” Deanna Maxwell said. “We prayed that night in the Paris High School gym and knew there was nothing else we could do except put it in God’s hands. As a mother, you always remain hopeful that your kid will suddenly get up and walk, so I was hanging onto every positive sign I could find.”
Those signs were gone when it was time for Joan Maxwell to negotiate her way to the family car at game’s end. The trek helped put her injury in perspective.
The excruciating pain, she said, “came upon me like a lightning bolt. I began fiddling around with it, trying to bend it, walk on it.
“I couldn’t bend it. I couldn’t straighten it out. That was scary.”
Father Greg Maxwell works at Christie Clinic, in the information technology department. He called one of the facility’s athletic trainers, Rick Jean, that night and arranged for a Wednesday morning appointment.
By the time Joan Maxwell was seen by Jean and Dr. Denis Williams, had an MRI exam and returned for a follow-up appointment, more than a week had passed since the injury.
“The appointment, of course, was at the end of the day, and by then, all of my nails were gone,” Joan Maxwell said. “I bit straight through them.”
Her parents and sisters, Rebecca and Abby, were by her side.
“I’m a talker, and I swear as we sat in the waiting room, I said no more than two words,” Joan Maxwell said. “I shook. I sat there and stared at the ground. I was sweating profusely.”
When the doctor entered, Maxwell said, “I stopped breathing.”
The two made eye contact and before Dr. Williams spoke, the teenager had a premonition of what she’d hear.
“The way he looked,” she said, “I just KNEW. My eyes were already watery, and I knew from that moment, it was not good.”
There was a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in the left knee, a strained medial collateral ligament, tears in the medial and lateral meniscus, and bone bruising.
Reconstructive surgery would be required. For most patients, the recovery time is seven to nine months. For some, it’s 10 months.
“It immediately felt like my world had come to an end,” Joan Maxwell said. “I was nothing but discouraged, heartbroken, so immensely depressed it was like a toll on my entire life. I bawled until I made myself sick.”
Thankfully, she was surrounded by her family.
“Joan’s tears that afternoon could have filled a pool,” Deanna Maxwell said. “She had a difficult time wrapping her mind around the fact that her high school career was over after only one complete game.
“She had worked so hard and was so excited.”
The operation will take place sometime in mid-January, once the inflammation has subsided and once Maxwell has regained more of her range of motion.
“Never in a million years did I think this would ever happen to me,” Joan Maxwell said. “I question, ‘Why me?’ every single day. I’m a very strong and firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I am just waiting for the day that I figure out why this has happened to me.”
She still attends every Unity practice and is at every game, but the time with her friends is bittersweet.
“There are no words out there to even begin to explain how much I miss it,” she said. “I want nothing more than another opportunity to play again.”
Joan Maxwell, however, will be courtside, and her voice will be heard. She wants to be the Rockets’ biggest cheerleader.
“I’m still just as much a part of the team as I was before,” she said, “except, obviously, I cannot play.
“This is still my team. These girls are still my girls. This is still my senior year, and I will make it worthwhile.”
As she copes with being an ex-athlete, she is experiencing one of life’s harshest lessons. Enjoy the moment because the next one is not a given.
“I took it all for granted,” Joan Maxwell said. “None of us realized how quickly things can be taken away from us. It’s satisfying to me that my teammates have learned a very valuable life lesson from me and this experience.
“I know for a fact we’ve all grown so much closer because of my injury. They’re here for me. If it were not for my girls, I don’t think I’d make it through this. I’ve needed all the support I can get.”
Gallick doesn’t need to issue reminders to the remainder of her team about playing hard.
“It is our hope that our athletes develop a mind-set and go out and play every game like it could be their last,” she said. “I’m sure Joan would agree with the theory of appreciating what you have because you don’t know when it will be gone.”
It’s a topic Maxwell will address with anyone, any time.
“Take pride in it. Enjoy the little things,” she said. “You can lose it all in seconds, literally faster than a blink of the eye. It is heartbreaking.”
The road ahead will be a tough one for Joan Maxwell. Unlike an athlete who is injured as an underclassman and diligently devotes herself to rehab knowing there’s another chance to play, Maxwell’s future won’t include sports. She’ll go to college and major in education.
There was a time — a brief time — she felt sorry for herself and wasn’t eager to commit herself to the grueling hours of rehab that soon will become a necessary part of her routine.
“It’s almost like, ‘What am I working for when I have no other season to work toward?’ ” she said.
Just as quickly as that thought entered her mind, a different perspective took over.
“I won’t settle with mediocrity,” she said. “I can’t see myself just sitting back and not putting forth much effort. Not working hard makes me feel pathetic. I don’t want to be a coward.
“There’s a reason for all of this, and I’m going to get something out of it. Never will any of this be easy, but that’s why it’s going to be worth it. I’m going to be a heck of a stronger person than I was before, and not many people can say that.”
Nor can many people say they’ve truly experienced a second chance at life.
“On Jan. 1, 2012, she walked away from a horrific roll-over car accident with simply a cut on her hand,” Deanna Maxwell said. “She knows she has been extended grace in her life and understands how precious things are.
“We tell her that her experiences provide her a platform in life to help others. This injury is no different.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.