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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Story of Duquesne's Waskowiak is a true inspiration

Normally it is the on-court exploits of the top-ranked UConn women's basketball team that gets documented in this blog with some WNBA coverage in the summer. However, when I made the decision 30 years ago to pursue a journalism career, it was the desire to tell people's stories that led me down this path.

Today I was given an opportunity to put together a story of a player who has just an amazing story to tell. For nearly 13 minutes I sat in the back end of the locker room that the Duquesne women's basketball team is using and listened to Erin Waskowiak tell her remarkable story.

Landing Waskowiak, who led Bishop Canevin High School in Pittsburgh to the PIAA Class AA title in 2013, was quite the feather in the caps of the Dukes' coaching staff. Waskowiak, who scored more than 1,900 points in high school, figured to be a vital cog in Dan Burt's first season at the helm of the program after Suzie McConnell Serio left to take over at Pittsburgh. All of that changed in a matter of seconds in front yard of her Pittsburgh home when freak accident resulted in Waskowiak being pinned up against a wall by a car driven by her brother.

Waskowiak's left leg was damaged so severely that the initial prognosis from the doctors who treated her believed the best course of action was to amputate the lower part of her leg. Her mother, however, asked for 48 hours before such a life-changing operation would take place. When that time frame passed, there was a surgery performed but the leg had recovered well enough to save it.

Fast forward 2 1/2 years and with her family members watching the NCAA first-round game against Seton Hall, Waskowiak entered Saturday's game with 55 seconds remaining with the Dukes leading by 18 points in the program's first NCAA tournament game. Only 23 seconds later Waskowiak navigated her way through a couple of screens, took a pass from Conor Richardson and drained a 3-pointer. To say that her teammates were excited when that shot went down would be quite the understatement.

"They are all very supportive of me whevever I get into the game coming back from a serious injury for me so it means a lot," Waskowiak said.

The 3 was the second hit by Waskowiak this season but first one that was televised.

"The first 3 that I made when I was at Richmond, they weren't able to see it," Waskowiak said. "When we are back home, I don't get in that much for them to see me but last night when they saw me make that, my phone was going crazy. They couldn't believe it, they were so happy for me."

It is far from the first time that Waskowiak received an outpouring of support.

Not long after her accident a story detailing her serious injury and long road to recovery was on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Waskowiak couldn't even try to estimate how many letters, emails and text messages came her way.

"(Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back) Rocky Bleier (who severely injured his right leg and right foot when being hit by a grenade during the Vietnam war) reached out to me and wrote a letter," Waskowiak said,. "He told me that 'don't let this get to you, I bounced back and you can be (on the court) soon.'

"I had so many people, I had mail coming to the hospital. One of the nurses said 'who is
this superstar on the fourth floor' or whatever floor we were on. We were getting so much mail from people that I didn't even know who followed me throughout high school and were so sad to see what happened to me. A lot of people reached out to me. I had Facebook posts like crazy, mail, so many phone calls and it was crazy.

"I didn't even know that people followed me. Being in the hospital, that made my spirits so much better. It put me in a better mood in the hospital because in the hospital, I was so sad, I couldn't walk. I was so happy to everybody who reached out to me and showed that they cared, it meant so much to me."

Waskowiak's mother did not tell Erin about the discussions surrounding the potential amputation of her leg until about a week later after it was certain that there would be no much procedure.

My mom asked if they could hold off for a little bit, give us 48 hours. Luckily in the 48 hours, I was able to heal and they were able to perform the first surgery.

"She didn't tell me and I guess she didn't want to worry me but if I did know, I probably would have been freaked out," Waskowiak said. "I was already freaked out the first night that it happened, going into my first surgery. I didn't know what was going to happen, if I would be able to play basketball again. The doctors didn't know, she is not going to be able to play so it was crazy. My mom and the doctors didn't tell me that they were going to cut my leg off."

One thing that Waskowiak didn't have to concern herself with was the status of her scholarship. Not one time did Burt or anybody at Duquesne even consider withdrawing the scholarship offer.

"That is not how we operate at Duquesne, very frankly if you are lucky enough for me to offer you a scholarship, that is for life," Burt said. "It is Duquesne for life and that is how we are, that is how we roll.

"She is a tough kid. She had the ACC and the old Big East conference (teams) offering her scholarships coming out of high school. She was a kid who wanted to stay home. We were very fortunate to get her. It hasn't worked out the way she wanted it but it is going to. It is going to be next year. I think she is going to help us because she provides size, a high basketball IQ and she is going to find some minutes."

There were seven surgeries dealing with compound fractures of her tibia and fibula. She also needed a skin graft, taking skin from her thigh to use on the lower portion of her leg.

"It is as devastating as it looks," Burt said. "She has many long nights in the hospital those first two weeks, we were very concerned. Father Dan Walsh is a priest at Duquesne was with her every day. He made a big difference in her recovery."

Those surgeries would have been enough for anybody to deal with but after countless hours of rehab to get back on the court, Burt said she had a tremendous game in a preseason scrimmage in 2014. Any hope that she would be contributing during the 2014-15 season ended at the very next practice when she tore her ACL.

"I was shocked," Waskowiak said. "I was overwhelmed and extremely sad. I didn't know what was going on, I was asking 'why is this happening to me.' I came back, this happened and I was
wondering when it was going to be my time. I have had the worst two years and I had bad luck."

Making matters worse was that there were even those questioning her love for basketball at that time.

 "Whenever I was hurting, people would ask me 'it doesn't seem like you like basketball any longer,'" Waskowiak said. "It wasn't that but it was just that I was going through a hard time. I was thinking when will I be playing, I don't want to be sitting. A lot of times a lot of people would say 'do you want to play.' It wasn't  that, I was going through a hard time and it made it seem like I didn't want to be a part of it. My main focus was being on the court so now that I am actually doing more, I am starting to more (engaged). Now I am challenging myself, look at yourself right now and what you can do."

Waskowiak has only played 14 minutes this season and it is uncertain if she will get on the court when Duquesne plays three-time defending national champion in Monday's second-round game. However, Burt is expecting her to play a major role beginning next season.

"April, May and June as critical months for her because we are going to a specific diet just for her and we have our pro-am summer league where we are really going to work with her to get her confidence back and her rhythm back on a more consistent basis."


Blogger Edward Massarsky said...

Sweet story, great young woman.

9:16 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, thanks for your excellent coverage of UConn WBB and their opponents. Best in the business. Wish that ESPN would have more coverage other than "3 to see" and 15 second highlights. :-)

6:03 PM 

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