Through the first six games of this basketball season, Kayla Hirt wore a cumbersome hinged brace to stabilize the surgically repaired ligament in her right knee. In time, the Gophers redshirt freshman realized it was functioning mostly as a crutch.
Hirt had spent two years recovering from knee injuries that robbed her of her senior season at Bemidji High School and delayed her Gophers' debut. She approached her return this fall with her usual cool, save for a tiny doubt about the strength of her right ACL. Last Saturday, Hirt decided she was sturdy enough -- physically and mentally -- to cast aside that final remnant of two seasons on the sideline.
In her first game without the brace, Hirt showed a glimmer of her old self to help the Gophers (6-1) muscle past Missouri. She scored a career-high 14 points, including 10 in a critical four-minute span late in the game as the Gophers turned a four-point deficit into a three-point lead. Through seven games, Hirt has come off the bench to average 18 minutes and 6.4 points, making strides toward becoming the scorer that coach Pam Borton believes she can be.
The 6-2 forward still hasn't replicated the form that made her a first-team all-state selection in 2010, when she averaged 26 points and 14 rebounds as Bemidji went 25-2 and made the state Class 3A quarterfinals. But her performance against Missouri fueled Hirt's confidence that she can, now that her knees are as strong as her will.
"It finally felt like I was starting to get in the flow of being me again,'' Hirt said of the Missouri game.
She scored eight consecutive points during the Gophers' surge to a 59-54 victory in their third game at the Cancun Challenge.
"That was exciting. I was ready to be put into a situation to help my team win. I knew I'd be able to come back. But even now, I don't know how long it's going to take for me to be that player that I was, to start succeeding in the same ways I used to. I have confidence in being that player again. It just takes time.''
Hirt tore the ACL in her left knee the summer before her senior season at Bemidji. A full year of recovery ended when Hirt was cleared to begin working out with the Gophers in the summer of 2011, and she felt proud of herself for getting through the grind of the first four weeks of practice.
Then she tore her right ACL in mid-October. Again, Hirt took the conservative path, committing nearly an entire year to rehabilitation while still participating in team activities.
Surprisingly, Hirt said, she wasn't nervous before her first college game earlier this month. She is comfortable with the role Borton has given her, to score consistently and be a go-to player late in games. Borton was delighted to see Hirt flash that promise last weekend.
"There is no doubt in my mind that she has the potential to do that every single game,'' Borton said. "If Kayla's got her feet set, if she's got a little bit of room to get her shot off, you know it's going in. She's a great scorer.''