Eighteen-year-olds don’t get herniated discs.
At least that’s what Mary Burke thought.
Burke was a prized get for Minnesota Crookston in the freshman class of 2018 — at the time, head coach Mike Roysland called her one of the most versatile athletes he’d ever recruited. She averaged 17 points and seven rebounds per game her senior season while leading Mountain Iron-Buhl H.S. to the state title game. At UMC, there were big minutes waiting for her right away.
A month before the 2018-19 season, Burke felt her hamstring flare up. At the time, she didn’t know that hamstring pain can be a sign of a herniated disc — the disc pinches a nerve, sending the pain through the back into the leg. She thought it was a normal basketball injury that would go away eventually. So she tried to push through.
She pushed through two games. The pain didn’t go away. She was diagnosed in mid-November and promptly underwent back surgery. To this day, neither she nor her doctors know what caused it.
“It was kind of a fluke thing,” Burke said. “ … The only (injury) I’d ever had was a twisted ankle.”
Fluke or not, it meant Burke’s season was over. She wouldn’t even be cleared to run until after the Golden Eagles’ season finished, and could only resume basketball activities later that spring. During the summer, her focus wasn’t on specific improvements, but getting back to where she was.
But even after returning to campus, Burke was, in her words, only about 85 percent. She regularly played the whole game in high school without getting tired. Now, she could hardly do three down-and-back sprints in a row, even though she wasn’t running as fast as normal.
Led by trainer Steven Krouse, the coaching staff checked in with Burke every day. All they expected was Burke’s honesty — if she wasn’t feeling good, she needed to let them know.
“They told me I had to be really honest because this is a serious matter,” Burke said. “It’s not just your ankle, it’s your back. You have to live with it your entire life, so you can’t mess it up.”
There was no rush to get Burke back on the court. Communication paid off — the coaches never had to tell Burke to dial something back, and Burke never felt boxed in.
“We needed to trust her and she needed to be honest with us, and I thought she did a great job of that,” Roysland said. “ … She was very good with her therapy and to do what she needed to do on a daily basis to strengthen her back.”
But Burke still hadn’t played in well over a year, and needed to get up to college speed. She felt timid, jittery — “What if I get hurt again?” was always in the back of her mind. She didn’t attack the rim much, settling for jumpers instead. Through 11 games, she was shooting just 35.5 percent.
The turning point came on Jan. 4 at Minnesota Duluth. Burke lives just one hour away and had played on the Bulldogs’ court in high school. She knew she’d have family and friends there to support her. Being in a familiar place seemed to wash the unease away.
There were no nerves as Burke knocked down four triples and scored 16 points, nearly leading UMC to an upset victory. For the first time in college, she was in a groove.
Burke started driving more. Banging down low. She looked like the player Roysland had recruited: a 5-foot-11 forward with the foot speed to take on a wing and the physicality to match up with fours and fives. Her back was holding up well enough to let her do that — but she wasn’t worried about it anyway.
“I felt comfortable just laying out on the court and seeing what happens,” she said. “ … I said, you can’t keep be afraid. You gotta put your trust in your game.”
For the season, Burke averaged 9.2 points and 24.6 minutes per game, both team-leading figures, and was third in rebounding. For a young team that won just five games, she looked the part of a go-to as much as anyone.
“It was a combination of her getting stronger and her figuring the game out,” Roysland said. “ … She just continued to get better the more she played.”
Roysland has high hopes heading into Burke’s redshirt sophomore year. He hopes she’ll keep attacking the rim on offense, to go with her outside shooting, as she’ll need to do both to become the player he thinks she’s capable of being. But taking the next step also means Burke has to be as confident as she was from January on — both in her skill and her body.
And as far as the latter goes?
“My back’s like 100 percent now.”
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