By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Western Illinois guard Jayda Adams played nine minutes in Saturday’s 71-57 loss to St. Thomas.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is for a sixth-year player who took a chance to play a final season.
Adams, who started her career at Duke, missed three seasons trying to recover from two tears to the ACL in her left knee.
“I think it’s really hard,” Adams said of her return. “Because when you’re out for so long, you’re watching it. So you kind of get a different love of the game from like the sideline point of view. But being back in practice, I really am very passionate, and I wear my heart on my sleeve and everything. So it’s just getting back into the groove. I’m just like, ‘This is why I love basketball.’”
When Adams played seven minutes in Western Illinois’ 84-69 win over St. Xavier on December 16, it was her first game since the 2019 season.
“At times it’s been really rewarding for her, but at times it’s been obviously challenging, and frustrating, mentally,” Western Illinois coach JD Gravina said of Adams, who has played 48 minutes in 10 games for the Leathernecks. “I think she was kind of further behind, more than she even realized, when she got here. Her injury was healed, but her strength was so far off. She just worked so hard. That’s what makes me really proud of her. To go from not being able to shoot a layup, to get to where she is now, says a lot for the work she put in.”
Adams suffered her first injury during a workout at Duke in April, 2019. The checklist of the damage is something she remembers.
“Completely tore my ACL,” she said. “I had a secondary tear in my MCL and a partial meniscus tear. And I fractured my femur.”
Adams’ rehabilitation was slowed by a change in the training staff at Duke, and then the COVID-19 pandemic. She was ready to come back for the 2020-21 season when she suffered another ACL tear during an individual workout, which required another surgery and more rehabilitation..
Adams was released from her scholarship at Duke after that season, then transferred to Cal State-Northridge. She didn’t play last season there and wanted to transfer.
She originally was going to Illinois-Chicago, but because it was so late in the admission process she wasn’t going to be able to get in. UIC assistant Dodie Dunson, a former director of basketball operations at Western Illinois, reached out to Gravina.
“We started talking to her a few days after school started, so it was a miracle we could get her in,” Gravina said.
“I was not going to play basketball anymore,” Adams said. “I was just kind of over it. I had a situation with my last coach (at CSUN), which made it really hard trying to find new schools and stuff like that. I reached out to the coaches at UIC, they really wanted me to go there. And their admissions wouldn’t let me in, just because it was so late. And then literally within a week I was out here talking (to Gravina).
“I made a decision in a couple of days, where most people have so much time to figure it out. They have time to get to know the coaching staff and maybe get to know the girls. So coming into it. I didn’t know anybody. I had to make my relationships off the jump, which was interesting, but also kind of fun at the same time.”
Adams’ level of experience impressed Gravina and his players. Before playing at Duke, Adams had played on the United States U16 national team in 2015.
“She definitely brings a lot of experience,” Western Illinois guard Elizabeth Lutz said. “She’s obviously played really competitive basketball. So she brings an intensity, and an experience, that a lot of us haven’t seen before and aren’t used to. So from the beginning, even when she wasn’t able to play wasn’t released yet, she was contributing in every way that she could, communicating and encouraging and still being in a huddle and still being really active with the team. She’s been a great addition.”
Gravina wasn’t sure Adams would be able to play at all this season.
“Her strength just wasn’t there,” he said. “And it’s been so long since she played. But it says a lot about her that she’s gotten to this point.”
“I am the type of person … I really don’t give up on things,” Adams said. “So I keep pushing, I keep going through it. But I think it got to a point where when I’m looking around, and I’m like, I came from a school like Duke. And now I only have (Division II) schools reaching out to me. That’s not a knock on them. But that is not the type of player I am. So that was really defeating. And I just kind of got to the point where I was like, ‘You know what, I am not going to lower my standards to play basketball.’
“I’ve given everything I have to basketball, I’ve been playing basketball since I was little, I played for the USA team, I’ve done things that most people could literally only dream about in their lives. And I’m so grateful for that. But it just kind of got to a point where I was like, ‘You know, there’s only so many hits that a person can take before they’re just kind of like, I’m over it.’”
But when Adams got into that game against St. Xavier, she knew the significance of the moment.
“It meant everything,” she said. “ I was shocked when they called my name at first because I was like, ‘Me?’ “I was nervous. Not so much about my knee but it was, just, I hadn’t played basketball in so long. So, being back out on the court is way different than being on the sidelines and cheering for your teammates and being dressed out and stuff like that.
“It was a lot. It was really emotional. My entire family was just very emotional, because it’s been such a long journey for me. So it was really fun to be back out there.”
“We were just kind of all like, all right, let’s see what she can do,” Lutz said. “I’m sure she felt a lot of pressure, because she obviously knew herself before (the injuries). We didn’t really have an expectation because a lot of us have been through injuries and know how difficult it is to come back and know how slow of a journey it can be sometimes. So it was exciting to see her out and getting a chance.”
Adams, who has a degree from Duke in psychology, is a graduate student in WIU’s sports management program. She wants to continue to work in sports after she’s done playing.
Her final season is almost over. The Leathernecks have home games this week with North Dakota and North Dakota State before playing in the Summit League tournament.
“To be honest. I just expect to be happy,” Adams said. “And my happiness is what matters to me, and playing basketball is what makes me happy. So that’s kind of where my head is with all this. I’m very proud of myself, for just being tenacious and never giving up. I feel like every day I was just fighting, just trying to fight to get back on the court. So yeah, being here is very special.”
Photo: Western Illinois guard Jayda Adams (top) has worked her way back on the court after missing three seasons because of injuries. (WIU Athletic Communications)