When Valerie Phipps broke her leg in a North Harford soccer game last September, she wasn't certain she'd set foot on a basketball court at all this year.
Friday, for the first time this season, Phipps played an entire half. And she helped the Hawks rally in the third quarter before falling 58-47 to Governor Miflin, of Reading, Pa., in a consolation match of the Holly & Hoops Tournament at the University ofMaryland Baltimore County.
In first-round action Thursday, the Hawks fell to Southern of Anne Arundel County, 53-32.
"I can tell I've played. It hurts," said Phipps as she prepared to ice down her left leg after Friday's contest. Despite the pain, Phipps was happy to play most of the game.
North Harford coach Lin James was just as happy. She knows she needs Phipps, a senior point guard, if the Hawks are going to win consistently.
"Valerie gives us the experience and stability," said James. "When we don't have her there, we have to go with a lot of inexperience, and I think that's evident."
The Hawks had 25 turnovers in the first half against Governor Miflin. But in the second half, they cut that to 10, and moved the ball inside more to center Tonia Bruno (15 points) and forward Carie James (11 points).
Phipps finished with two points, two assists and three steals. She never has contributed a lot of points, but that has not been her job. Her ball-handling and assists are invaluable to the Hawks, whose experience is inside.
"Valerie makes a big difference," said James. "She knows how to get theball to Carie more."
As much as James would like to use Phipps more, she has nursed her along slowly. "It's going to take a while. She's coming off a traumatic injury," said James.
Phipps doesn't remember much about the day she broke her leg during a collision with theopponents' goalie.
"Her whole body got my leg, and, I think that's what broke it, but I took a step to balance myself, and that's whenit came through the skin."
To set the bone and help it heal more quickly, surgeons inserted a rod that will remain for about 18 months.
Without the rod, Phipps said, she would have been in a cast for five months. Even after sitting out just a couple weeks, Phipps was anxious to get back in the game. She had never had to sit out a game since she started playing recreation soccer in the first grade.
Thetime off gave her a chance to think more about college, where she might play some intramural basketball.
With a 3.8 grade-point average, Phipps isn't thinking about college basketball. She is more interested in studying environmental engineering.
After a month and a half on crutches, she started physical therapy. Although she never madeit back to soccer, she joined the basketball team for the first practice.
"I couldn't hardly do anything at the beginning," said Phipps. "But Mrs. James was real patient. She didn't want me to push it. If I feel any pain, the doctor said to sit out, but it mostly feels like a big bruise."
Phipps can feel the improvement.
"It's been kind of slow, but each week I can feel it getting better. It's not a day-to-day thing -- it's a week-to-week thing.
Until the Holly & Hoops Tournament, Phipps only averaged about two or three minutes per quarter. In Thursday night's first-round game in the Holly Division ofthe tournament, Phipps played sparingly.
The Hawks turned the ball over 19 times against the full-court pressure of the Southern Bulldogs, ranked No. 11 by The Sun.
Sophomore guards Melissa Anderson and Nicole Bogarty didn't have the experience to break the press. WhenPhipps was in the game, she was tentative on her injured leg and didn't do much better. She turned the ball over four times.
"My mind is going faster than my leg will allow me to," said Phipps. "On the press, I can see a hole, but by the time I get to the opening, everybody has caught up to me."
In Friday's game, Phipps took a giant step forward. She played with more confidence, helped the Hawks break the press and passed the ball through those holes.
Now that she's getting significant playing time, Phipps knows that the recovery is notall physical.
"It's a matter of getting my confidence back. I'm afraid someone might hit it and hurt it again. I hope that will get better as my leg gets stronger."