McKenna House wants to play. She’s dying to play.
The forward for the Indian River girls basketball team needs to play because, like all juniors, her high school athletic career is waning.
However, unlike most juniors who are losing their penultimate season due to COVID-19’s impact on high school athletics, this won’t be the first full season House has missed. It will be her second — in a row.
House, a post player for the Warriors who came up to varsity as an eighth grader, last played varsity basketball nearly two years ago when her freshman season ended in sectionals. A few months following the conclusion of that season, House fell victim to an all-too-common, yet serious knee injury.
In an AAU scrimmage as a member of the Syracuse Royals in July 2019, House attempted a rebound. It was fairly routine — from the wing she cut to the basket to meet the ball in mid-air but crumbled to the floor when her leg reconnected with the hardwood. Her father, Aaron House, saw her left knee twist just a little bit on impact.
Sitting on the court, unable to get up, House told her father she heard a snap. They decided it was best to have doctor check out the knee, so Aaron House, standing at 6-foot-4 and recovering from a knee injury of his own, put his not-so-little daughter on his back to escort her from the gym and into their car. On their way to Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists, McKenna began to tear up. The typically laid back 15-year-old isn’t one to cry, so the tears in her eyes were telling.
Once inside SOS, a doctor examined the X-rays of the injured knee and all but confirmed the fears. McKenna had severed her anterior cruciate ligament, better known as a torn ACL.
Her sophomore season was over months before it began.
THE INJURY AND RECOVERY
Three weeks into the 2019 school year, House visited Rob Brookes’ athletic training room during her scheduled study hall. Less than a month prior on Aug. 29, she had undergone surgery to repair her torn ACL, drastically limiting the range of motion in her left knee.
Sitting on the black-padded table at the training room, House tried to lift her heel. At that moment, three weeks removed from surgery, that simple task proved to be near impossible for the varsity athlete.
“I felt broken,” House said.
Brookes would reassure House: “Everything is going to be OK, it’s one day at a time,” he would say and also add, “There are going to be setbacks.”
“I don’t pull any punches when it comes to this stuff,” Brookes said. “Because if I say it’s going to be OK, and they have a setback and we have to stop for a week or so, then that just puts more doubt in their brain.”
Being honest with the athlete about the process is part of Brookes’ job. Then it’s the athletes responsibility to set goals and remain motivated to returning to pre-injury form.
“We plan it out, ‘in two weeks’ time this is what you should be able to do,’” Brookes said. “And then, like for McKenna, basketball is a big thing for her. So even though she couldn’t go out there and run around and jump around and cut and all that stuff, let’s go out and shoot the basketball.”
Brookes knew it was important to get the 15-year-old’s mind off the injury. Focusing on basketball was the best way to do it.
Sport specific training began small. “Let’s go shoot free throws,” Brookes would suggest to House. Then, as her motion improved, shooting free throws evolved into a game of horse. Eventually Brookes would place cones on the ground and have House run basketball drills.
“You start off with small simple goals,” Brookes said, “and you just keep building on those.”
House’s knee inevitably got stronger and her confidence grew. When Brookes first told her that her knee would improve, House didn’t always feel like that was a sure thing.
“Right now it doesn’t seem like it would get better,” House said of the beginning of her training. “But I watched my dad get better and all the athletes get better.”
House was there when her father tore his ACL, more than year before she tore hers. It was also during a basketball game. Playing in a men’s league, Aaron House simply turned while dribbling the ball.
“I just hit the floor,” Aaron House said.
McKenna, filling in for a missing player, was on the court when it happened.
An only child, McKenna was already close with her dad. Not only did they bond through basketball but also through food and movies, specifically the “Harry Potter” series and the “Back to the Future” trilogy.
The shared experience of the injury helped that bond grow.
“He helped me do my exercises,” McKenna said. “He gave me some exercises that he did. Once I could start doing stuff again, we would go up to the gym or the court and just play and work on getting my strength back.”
On the court they are intensely competitive. McKenna, standing at 5-foot-10, has to work to get the ball past the lengthy arms of her father, who is six inches taller.
“It’s helped me be stronger and learn to handle the ball better,” McKenna said. “I’ve had to learn to get by him and his arms are everywhere.
“He doesn’t let me win,” she added.
Aaron House enjoyed no part of watching his daughter sit out her entire sophomore season. However, as the team’s stat keeper, he admitted that without her on the court, he was much less stressed at games.
Nevertheless, he would accept that stress if it meant McKenna was healthy and playing.
“I just want to watch her play basketball again,” Aaron said.
While Aaron House sat courtside, recording every stat, McKenna sat on the bench, wishing she could contribute to the action on the court.
Her ACL tear erased the role that she had expected to play. As a post-player with height, House would have fit nicely into the Indian River lineup. Her presence would have allowed the versatile Adrien LaMora to take more of a guard role and spend less time in the paint.
On the bench House watched as her team battled to an 11-11 record, though the play on the court was more promising than a .500 record suggests.
Sitting out was far from easy. At the start of the season, instead of running plays on the court, House was running the clock.
Come the first game of the season, House stood underneath the basket, clad in warm up gear, helping rebound during shoot around.
“I should be out there, too,” she thought.
When games would start, she perched herself on the bench next to assistant coach Fred LaVancha.
The two developed a bond over the course of the season.
“He would show me where people are supposed to be,” House said, “what people are doing wrong, how to fix it.”
If there is any silver lining to House’s ACL tear, it’s that sitting through games on the bench, unable to play, offered her a perspective that she otherwise wouldn’t have received. She wasn’t focused on her game, she was focused on her teammate’s game. How they moved with the ball, where they succeeded where they failed.
“A couple of things that were always going on, because of her versatility there was always something for her to learn while watching and observing the game,” LaVancha said. “It’s not like she’s watching what one person is doing or maybe filling one role on the floor. There’s the potential for doing a variety of things.”
Slowly, House improved. One of the more exciting days came in the first few days of 2020. Fresh off a trip to Disney, a popular vacation spot for the House family, she was cleared to participate in practice again. Wearing brand new teal and pink Puma sneakers, House walked into the gym with her team for practice, not as a clock manager, but as a participant.
“I just felt so happy to be on the court, doing something,” House said.
Her teammates were happy, too, they missed having their post player in practice.
“They were excited, they were all really happy,” House said. “It made me feel really good because I haven’t been able to do any of that.”
When the next game arrived, House was back on the bench. Though her role had expanded. She wouldn’t sit and watch quietly. She would often pass on advice to her teammates and let them in on what she was seeing from the opposing team.
The Warriors’ season ended with a loss to Christian Brothers Academy in the quarterfinal round of the Class A sectional tournament. For House it was bittersweet. The 2019-20 season ended, but in the 2020-21 season, and she was going to play.
While Indian River’s year had reached its end, other Frontier League teams continued to play. House prepared to watch her friends on the South Jefferson girls basketball team compete for a state title.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, hitting New York particularly hard. All state championships were canceled, students were kept out of school buildings and life began to drastically change.
House still had eyes on her junior year. She couldn’t have predicted a season on the verge of cancellation.
ANOTHER LOST YEAR
Eight months after the COVID-19 crisis in the United States began, House was in a car with LaMora on her way down to Rochester.
The Syracuse Royals were holding two-hour long intrasquad scrimmages at the Tri-County Sports Complex.
The last time House had played with the Syracuse Royals, she left the gym with a blown-out knee. Now more than a year later, she was fully healed and ready to play basketball at full speed.
House and LaMora, driven by LaMora’s mother, traveled the two-and-a-half hours to the Rochester facility on Nov. 26. Due to the pandemic, this was House’s first full basketball activity since her injury. Excited, nerves flowed through her body.
She was concerned over the stability of her reconstructed ACL, which had yet to be tested in a full basketball game. She was concerned over the competition. The last time she played basketball, she was a freshman. Now a junior, it was unclear how much other girls on the team had passed her by.
“I was so out of shape,” House said.
To her surprise, her knee held up exceptionally well. But she still had room to grow.
“They got better, that first one I was kind of just a body on the floor,” House said of the scrimmages. “But they got better.”
By the sixth-and-final session a couple of weeks before Christmas, House was making more shots and moving faster up the court with much more ease.
She and LaMora had also developed a better on court relationship.
“I just know how she moves and where she goes,” House said of LaMora. “So it’s been easier for me to move to a different spot to be open and it makes it easier for her to find out where she needs to be.”
But Indian River can’t put that new chemistry on full display. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has put an indefinite hold on all high-risk sports — which basketball is considered by the state department of health — until state officials authorize them.
To compensate for no interscholastic athletics, schools have offered intramurals, albeit with required COVID-specific restrictions.
Every Monday, coach Jim Whitley holds an intramural session for his team. Having activity is nice, but it’s not a practice nor a game.
“(I’m) going once a week to the gym with my team,” House said. “We should be going six days a week for an hour and a half to two hours, plus games and we can’t do that.”
It’s unclear if or when a basketball season can be salvaged, though every day that passes adds to the despair.
“I feel stressed,” House said. “Because it’s just another season going away, and I can’t do anything.”
She wants to hold out hope for this season and tries to remain focused on what she has right now. But even that hope is fading.
“I haven’t been really focused on this year because I don’t think it’s going to happen,” House said. “I’ve been thinking next year, just go out, give it my all and do what I have to.”
Fortunately for the Warriors, they don’t have any seniors on this year’s squad, meaning all the current members of the team should be returning for next season.
Aaron House and his wife Nicole are disappointed that for the second year in a row they can’t see their daughter play basketball. Aaron House put into words what every parent, coach and fan are feeling: “it’s really just a real shame that all these kids are missing out on all this.”
As for his daughter, Aaron House doesn’t believe there is another player more well-equipped to handle the adversity McKenna has faced these past two seasons.
“She takes things as they come and deals with problems as they come and doesn’t get worked up about it,” Aaron House said. “I think she’s the perfect person to deal with that adversity because she just deals with it, there’s no drama about it.”
Despite all that’s happened to her high school basketball career, McKenna House isn’t angry.
“I’m humbled by it,” she said. “I just kind of accepted it, it is what it is. It’s just going to happen.”