Morgan Spitzer had plans for her senior basketball and softball seasons. Three knee surgeries later, she’s watching from the sidelines.
SPRINGFIELD — Morgan Spitzer has spent all of her senior basketball season on the bench, and she’ll spend her senior softball season in the dugout.
Spitzer’s not on the sidelines because of laziness or poor play; she led the Braves with 15 points per game as a sophomore and had close to a .500 on-base percentage last softball season. Spitzer’s not playing because her career has been cut off at the knees due to multiple injuries.
She tore the ACL in her right knee in 2012, which slashed her sophomore basketball season in half. Two surgeries allowed her to compete as a junior, but the need for a third one last November ended her high school career.
In theory, Spitzer could play without her ACL — she apparently did last year. But playing this year was more risk than she was willing to take.
“I’m rehabbing for life,” Spitzer said. “I’m not rehabbing to come back anytime soon. They said I’m out for two years. If I hurt it again, I could end up having to have a knee replacement later in life, and no one wants that.”
Sophomore seasons cut short
Spitzer first tore the ACL and meniscus in her right knee in the middle of her sophomore basketball season. She had surgery soon after to replace the damaged ligament. Doctors reconstructed her ACL with tissue from her hamstring.
She was forced to miss the remainder of basketball season and all softball season to rehabilitate. Spitzer continued to rehab through the summer but re-tore her meniscus in an open gym. The meniscus tear required more surgery and more rehab.
“It was very tough because I was playing well (before the first injury),” Spitzer said. “I worked really hard and was really excited to get back and play.”
“I just didn’t feel like myself”
Spitzer, a shooting guard, was ready to return to the court for her junior season. But things weren’t the same. She was slower than she was before the injuries and her knee didn’t feel as strong. She averaged only 6.5 points per game in 17 games — far fewer than the 11 points per game she averaged as a freshman.
“I just wasn’t as quick,” Spitzer said. “One of my biggest strengths my freshman year and my sophomore year was that I could literally just do one move and get around most people. I could feel my body wouldn’t let me do things I could normally do. I just didn’t feel like myself.”
She returned to the softball diamond as a second baseman last spring and helped the Braves make a run to the regional finals. She had a .415 batting average and was second on the team with a .488 on-base percentage. Her knee still felt a bit odd, but she didn’t think anything too drastic was wrong.
She doubled her efforts last summer to build strength in her knee and improve at both sports. She played with a traveling softball team and participated heavily in the Braves’ open gyms and summer camps. Shawnee head basketball coach Blake Garberich was pleased with her play in the summer and noticed vast improvement over the previous winter.
Spitzer worked more in open gyms during the fall to improve her shot. She also tried to improve the penetration moves that helped her score so many points as a freshman and sophomore, but she still couldn’t move as fast as before. In addition, she sometimes heard a faint clicking noise from her knee when she moved. So, she had the knee inspected again in October.
“That’s when we got the blow,” Garberich said.
Doctors discovered that Spitzer’s graft from her first surgery was a biologic failure. Her body never incorporated the graft, and as a result, her new ACL was loose and not functional.
“I found out that my knee never actually healed,” Spitzer said. “I never had an ACL. I’d been playing all through last basketball season and all softball season with no ACL. My body basically rejected the graft which I still can’t believe because it only happens to like three percent of ACL reconstructions.”
Spitzer was faced with a decision. She could play her senior basketball and softball seasons without a functioning ACL, or she could return to the operating table for her third surgery in two years. Surgery would mean months of rehab and no chance to play either sport for Shawnee again.
It was a difficult and emotionally taxing decision to make. Her family left the final decision to her. Spitzer spent two weeks mulling it over.
“You can play without an ACL,” Spitzer said. “But if I did play I could damage (my knee) more. I just felt like if I couldn’t play 100 percent and end my season the way I wanted to, then it wasn’t even worth it to me.”
She decided to forgo both seasons and focus on healing her knee. Doctors advised her to refrain from competitive sports for two years.
“It was hard to end it,” Spitzer said. “I just wanted one more game. I kept telling myself that maybe I’ll play one more game. But then if I play bad and I hurt it, I wondered if it would be worth it. It was hard to end it because it was basically like a senior night that you didn’t see coming.”
It was a blow to Shawnee’s basketball team, too. The Braves were again without their former leading scorer.
“That’s a great option on offense and a great player we lost,” Garberich said. “But I think the person it hurt the most was her. With a third knee surgery, she’d worked so hard to come back from her previous two, that I think she was heartbroken it happened again.”
Moving to a new role
Spitzer was depressed after realizing her athletic career was over. Younger sister Claudia Spitzer (a reserve guard for the Braves) knew it was a tough reality to face.
“She’s always worked really hard,” Claudia Spitzer said of her older sister. “She’s always been a really hard worker. I think that to see that come to an end hurt her. She has nothing really to work for and that’s really hard for her. I think the surgery is what she needed to do, and she knew that. But it was hard for her emotionally.”
But the end of Spitzer’s playing career hasn’t barred her from being around the basketball team. She’s become a student assistant coach of sorts and sits on the bench during games.
“I think she’s been a positive role model,” Garberich said. “She’s always pushing the girls to continue to fight, continue to want to keep being successful. I think that’s kind of what she’s brought to the bench. She’s got a positive attitude for the girls to lift them and try to keep them motivated.”
It’s not the only area where Spitzer has kept involved in sports. Her uncle coaches Shawnee’s eighth grade girls basketball team, and she helps out as an assistant coach.
“It’s fun. I’m not very good at it because I get angry and yell, and that’s not a good coach,” Spitzer said with a laugh. “… Coaching’s really taught me a lot. You kind of see your mistakes and you’re like, ‘Why didn’t I do this?’ I kind of look back and say that if I was magically healthy and could play again, my game would be so different because I got to see everybody’s mistakes and I could fix it with myself.”
The education through coaching hasn’t replaced what it was like to be on the court, though. Spitzer says it’s hard to watch Shawnee’s games and imagine how the season would have been if she was on the court. Her teammates wonder the same thing.
“I think we all really miss her playing,” Claudia Spitzer said. “She was really aggressive all the time. We miss her aggressiveness on the court. She was just an all-around good player.”
Shawnee (11-9) has one regular season game left before starting tournament play. The Braves are the seventh seed in the Tecumseh Div. II sectional and open tournament play against Benjamin Logan on Feb. 19. Spitzer said she’ll be on the bench to encourage her teammates through the postseason.
“I think if we play the best that we can play, we have a chance (to make a run),” Spitzer said.
In search of a silver lining
Spitzer is also thinking about her future. She wants to attend Butler or Evansville for college and become a physical therapist. Multiple surgeries and rehab time has taught her what the field is like. The early education may not have been worth the missed playing time, though.
“I felt like the first and the second surgery was a good education,” Spitzer said. “It was a good lesson that kind of grounds you. Because I kind of identified myself through sports. It kind of makes you re-identify yourself. But I don’t get this (third) one yet. I haven’t found the silver lining in this surgery yet. We’ll see.”
Claudia Spitzer, who wears Morgan’s former No. 10 jersey on Shawnee’s basketball team, is also an outfielder on the softball team. She says her sister will be missed this spring as much as she was for basketball.
“We need a second baseman now and for someone to fill the gap she’s left,” Claudia Spitzer said. “We’ll really miss her, but we’ll have to move on and learn to play without her.”