Wright State had a big secret.
One that included a clothing cover-up.
Clandestine practice sessions.
And a vow by all the members of the team to zip their lips in the days leading up to the Raiders’ NCAA Tournament game with Texas A&M on Friday at the Aggies home court, Reed Arena, here in College Station.
“I just told the kids not to say anything to anybody,” admitted WSU coach Katrina Merriweather.
In a practice session six days before the Raiders would fall 84-61 to the 14th-ranked Aggies, Emily Vogelpohl – the starting point guard, the No. 6 all-time career scorer at WSU with 1,381 points, the heart and soul of the team – broke her right wrist in a freak accident.
“It was Emily being Emily,” Merriweather said. “I call her a kamikaze. She doesn’t stop.
“Anisja Harris was shooting and Emily was playing defense, just hustling and chasing down the shooter. She ran up behind her and tried to swat upwards to tip the ball away. Just then Anisja’s elbow came down from the shot and it hit her right on top of the bone.
“Immediately her fingers went numb. And when she didn’t practice the next day – she never misses practice – I was like. ‘Oh boy, we got us a problem here.’”
Although she said she knew she’d hurt her shooting hand, Vogelpohl was stunned when she learned last Monday that her wrist was broken:
“I’m not gonna lie. When I got the news, I was devastated.”
Vogelpohl soon was sobbing and she called her family, which had gone from Cincinnati to Florida on spring break.
“That was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had,” said Eric, her dad. “She was just so crushed by it. She said. ‘I’ve worked my whole life for this one game. It just seems so unfair.’
“She was crying, but what can you say? That ‘there’s s a life lesson here,’ or that, ‘you’re tough and can do his.’
“She said, ‘Dad, I can’t even roll my hand over. And I don’t want to hurt my team. I don’t know what to do.’”
She said she talked to her boyfriend, Bill Wampler, the star of the Raiders men’s team: “He just said to take it by the head and play as hard as I can.”
She huddled with her coaches, including assistant Abby Jump, who was on the 2014 team, and especially Merriweather.
“I told her we’re going to find a way through this,” said Merriweather, who then brought up an incident from her University of Cincinnati days.
She was a young player on the Bearcats women’s team in the late 1990s and Ryan Fletcher was one of the standouts on Coach Bob Huggins’ men’s team.
She recounted the scene – minus the profanity, but including the tough love – that had unfolded between Huggins and Fletcher.
“(Fletcher) had punched the basketball post and broke his hand,” Merriweather remembered. “I was watching practice. They taped it up and Huggins told him to get his (blankety-blank) but on the other side of the floor.
“They ran plays to his good hand. They figured out a way. And I said, ‘We’ll do the same. We’ll figure a way.’”
Merriweather said they forged ahead once she was told that Vogelpohl could do no further serious damage if her wrist was kept protected. In fact, she was told if Emily keeps it aligned, the bones should grow back together without surgery.
“Emily doesn’t do anything half way,” Merriweather said. “She and I went in the gym and worked for a few days on her left hand. She shot 100 to 200 shots each day. She was frustrated early on, but then she saw some shots go in.
“She actually shoots 1,000 times better with her left hand. If you ever watched her shot it. It looks like a knuckleball. There’s no rotation. But with her left, the rotation is perfect.”
Vogelpohl still worried about bringing the ball up the floor and especially about hurting her team.
“She said, ‘If I’m going to hurt the team, I’m not going to play,’” Merriweather recalled. “I don’t know how she ever thought she could hurt this team. The other kids feed off her. She’s meant everything to this program. She deserved to hear her named called at the start of the game.”
Part of winningest class in WSU history
Friday, Vogelpohl had a small cheering section in Reed Arena. Her dad was there. So was her high school coach, Dan Wallace, and a couple of other people, including Lexi Chrisman, who been a teammate at McAuley High School and had played for Rice in the first game against Marquette.
Eric Vogelpohl said his daughter first got her toughness playing sports with her older brother and his friends:
“Growing up she also played baseball – she was a pitcher and a shortstop – against the boys until the fifth or sixth grade. That’s where she really learned to compete.”
Wallace said the toughness showed in high school, too: “I think it was freshman year, she played a bunch of games with a broken thumb. And all through college she battled injuries, but couldn’t be held back.”
Eric went through her medical chart: “Freshman year she played with a bad knee. Sophomore year she had a shoulder separation and surgery and never missed a game.
“This past November she had planters fasciitis and had to get cortisone shots in her heel and special inserts.”
She missed just three games out of a possible 137 in her four years at WSU.
Along with Mackenzie Taylor and Symone “Junior” Simmons, she became part of the winningest class (99 victories) in WSU history.
As much as she lamented the “horrible” timing of her broken wrist, she said she began to realize, ‘It could have been worse. It could have happened before the Green Bay game.”
That game was for the championship of the Horizon League Tournament and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Although the Phoenix had dominated WSU over the years, they didn’t this season. WSU won two of three games.
In the title match-up, Vogelpohl led WSU with 14 points and scored eight in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
When she and the Raiders had their first practice at Reed Arena on Thursday, Vogelpohl went straight to the blocks underneath the basket and began shooting short, left-handed shots. She did the same from the foul line.
While she could make shots standing still, she had trouble moving and pulling up for a jumper. When she’d miss, she’d screw up her face in frustration and sometimes mutter some words of exasperation. Once she kicked the ball away in disgust.
When she finally hit a jumper off a move, Harris, the freshman whose elbow had caught her wrist, ran up and the two did a chest bump and laughed..
And when Vogelpohl finally hit back to back free throws, she beamed as teammates chattered encouragement.
At the press conference that followed, she didn’t want to give away her secret to the Aggies.
She wore a black T-shirt with long sleeves that covered the foam padding and brace trainer Emily Albanese had fitted her with. To be of the safe side, she kept her right arm under the table as she sat on the dais.
She wore those same sleeves – “they washed them for me first,” she laughed – under her jersey against A&M.
When the opening tip came her way, she dribbled, using her right hand and mostly her left, into the half court.
Early on she got a rebound and missed a couple of shots.
Then came the play that ended with a scream.
With 7:28 left in the second quarter, she tried to block a shot inside by the Aggies’ 6-foot-4 Cierra Johnson. She swung her right hand at the ball, missed and caught Johnson in the shoulder. She was whistled for the foul and the pain that followed the impact momentarily overwhelmed her,
“When you’re in the game, you don’t think about it,” she said. “Right then it was all adrenaline and instinct. And I just bent down and screamed a little bit.”
Yet, less than a minute later – after A&M had started to wise up to her plight and she said one Aggies’ player yelled to the others, “She’s got no right! She’s got no right!” – Vogelpohl cut down the lane, got a pass from teammate Teneshia Dixon and made the left-handed lay-up.
In the third quarter, she again forgot herself and deflected the ball away from Jada Walton using her right hand. This time she was near tears and rubbed her right wrist.
She finished the game with two points and two rebounds in 22 minutes.
Other players picked up the slack, most notably freshman point guard Angel Baker, who had a team-high 22 points.
When Merriweather finally pulled Vogelpohl from the game with 1:25 left, a loud “We Love You, Em!” came from her cheering section in the stands. Merriweather hugged her as did her teammates. Several were tearful.
At the postgame press gathering, a local reporter asked ‘What was going on with your right hand?”
Vogelpohl looked at Merriweather, who nodded and whispered: “You can tell them.”
She then ‘fessed up.
She told how appreciative she was to have finally gotten this chance to play on the NCAA Tournament stage and then she headed out to courtside to share the moment with her family and friends.
While out there she answered a couple of my final questions and when I turned to leave, she held out her right hand so we could shake.
Fearful I might do more damage, I instead reached for her left.
She shook her head and kept her right hand extended.
“It’s OK,” she said with a faint smile.
The way she saw it, she’d used her left enough on this day.
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