Rachel Banham was cleared to go nuts on a basketball court last week for the first time in nearly 10 months. She celebrated like a bull in a china shop.
Sunday’s practice, her first at full contact, featured many bruises and several stunned scout players, some of them having gotten knocked over by the Gophers’ fifth-year senior, who missed most of last year after a December knee injury.
“They were like ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ ” Banham remembered Tuesday. “ ‘You can do this?’ ”
“And I’m like ‘Yeah. I can.’ ”
With the season opener just over a month away, Banham is back, and with the program’s career scoring record within her reach, plans to be stronger, tougher and yes, more aggressive than ever.
Banham, who tore her ACL in a Dec. 10 game at North Dakota, watched last season as the Gophers, relying heavily on senior forward Shae Kelley and All-America sophomore center Amanda Zahui B., charged to their first NCAA tournament in six years without her.
But both Zahui B. and Kelley departed for the WNBA in April, and the Gophers will need Banham more than ever to avoid taking a step backward, even if they occasionally have to tell their ambitious returner to “settle down.”
“We’re expecting probably a stronger, more talented Rachel than she’s been since she’s been here,” coach Marlene Stollings said. “I expect this to be her best year as a Gopher.”
Banham is also expected to claim Minnesota’s career scoring record, currently held by Lindsay Whalen, who accumulated 2,285 points from 2000 to 2004.
Banham is only 107 points away and figures to pass Whalen before Christmas. Or in three games if you ask some of the coaches, chiding their top player.
“Whoa, that’s a lot of points,” said Banham, who averaged 18.6 points, 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds before getting hurt last year. “I told them four, five, six games might be reasonable.”
Senior guard Shayne Mullaney doesn’t have to be convinced. She watched her teammate, in the few offensive plays she was allowed in over the summer, score almost immediately each time.
“I’m like ‘Of course,’ ” she said. “It’s just always going to be natural for Rachel.”
Getting back to “natural,” though, required months of slow building and a few odd-sounding tactics.
After surgery in January, the 5-9 Lakeville native went through her initial rehabilitation before kicking things up a notch when new strength and conditioning coach Ralph Petrella was hired in July.
His focus was on regaining her explosiveness and getting her body readjusted to jumping. Petrella also brought some new techniques, including occlusion training — in which he uses a tourniquet to cut off blood supply to the injury for certain workouts.
The idea, Petrella said, is to starve the cells so they grow more when the pressure is removed.
“It’s definitely different,” said Banham, who credits the treatment for leaving her “fresher” after workouts. “Anything that helps my knees, body get better, I’m open to all those ideas and he has a lot of crazy ideas.”
Another of those is the new monitors Petrella has all the players wearing during workouts and practices. The device tracks everything from heart rate to internal core temperature and even the toll that all the running and jumping takes on Banham’s rehabbing knee. It also shows exactly how much improvement she has made from a cardiovascular standpoint.
“It’s very, very exciting,” Petrella said. “She’s very committed, and I think she’ll be much improved.”
The device has helped the team know when to hold Banham back and when to let her attack, Petrella said, even if Banham doesn’t always listen. Although she can compete in every drill and calls her knee “95 percent” healthy now, the coaches sometimes pull her out of drills for rest.
But then they’ll turn around and there Banham will be, back in the drill rotation.
“We have to keep an eye on her,” Stollings said, smiling. “She’s certainly anxious to get out there — she’s a great competitor … With an ACL, it’s usually as much mental as it is physical when they get into the final month. For her to want to be out there I think shows that she’s not hesitant about her knee.”
At least not in the moment. Banham admits she plays some mind games with herself when she mulls the pounding her knee takes in practice and games. But when her sneakers touch the hardwood, the bull is back. No thinking. No hesitating. Scout players beware.
“I actually surprise myself,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be sitting and thinking about something and I’ll think ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ And then I get on the court and I’m in another zone.
“I get too competitive and I drive and I’m hitting people.”