Comeback trail

New Town's Peju Awodipe can still outrun and outjump most opponents - even as she recovers from knee surgery

Girls basketball

February 28, 2007|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun Reporter

When New Town's Peju Awodipe drove to the basket or soared after a rebound in her past few games, it was difficult to tell that she had suffered a major knee injury just eight months ago.

A second-team All-Metro pick last season, the 5-foot-5 guard relies on her exceptional athleticism, speed and leaping ability to distinguish her from most of the area's other small guards.

"She's amazing. She's so fast. She can jump, too. I remember one time I was playing against her and she blocked my shot to half court," said Southside's 6-foot All-Metro forward-guard Sheree Ledbetter, whose team has split with the Titans in the past two Class 1A state tournaments.

In June, Awodipe tore the anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage in her right knee while playing with Team Unique, a club team of elite players from Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia. She had surgery in late June and wasn't able to play for the Titans until last month.

Even though she said she is only about 60 percent of the way to full recovery, she is still faster than most players and can jump higher than many.

"Before she tore her ACL, I thought she was by far the most athletic player in the entire region, in the whole area of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia," Team Unique coach James Nichols said. "Personally, I think Peju has the athleticism and the potential to play in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference], but I think the skill level has to come up a little bit."

College coaches certainly see that athleticism, and Awodipe said several are interested, including those from Miami, St. John's and Georgetown.

For Awodipe, who is extremely competitive, holding back to protect her knee has been a struggle.

"Mentally, it's really hard," said Awodipe, 17. "Sometimes I think, let me drive to the hole where I can easily jump over somebody, but I have to settle for a jumper. You want to do things you were capable of doing before, but sometimes you've got to just take it how it comes and play it as hard as it will take you."

It takes her further every day.

After trying to play at the Basketball Academy in mid-January, Awodipe realized she needed to take a little more time off.

"After a while [the right knee] just started locking up and I couldn't get it to move," she said. "It was like I was dragging it along. That's why I took some more time off. If it's pain, I can deal with that, but if it locks up and you can't move, then you can't do anything."

She returned against Randallstown on Feb. 2, looking much stronger and scoring 20 points. She followed that with 18 against Milford Mill.

In the Baltimore County championship Feb. 17, Awodipe led the No. 8 Titans (18-1) with 12 points. Eight of them, including a three-pointer, came in a critical stretch of the third quarter that forced Dulaney coach Richard Welsh to clamp down on her.

"She was the best guard on the floor and she's still got that explosive first step that gives her all the room she needs to get off her lethal jump shot. They were pretty pure, no rim at all on most of them. When she started heating up in the third quarter - she's a scorer, and when they get going, you've got to put a stop to it right away," said Welsh, who used a diamond-and-one defense to cool Awodipe and boost the Lions to a 57-47 win over the defending champion Titans.

Awodipe, however, is trying to measure up to her own high standards.

"To me, I feel slow and my jumper, that's not even there right now," she said. "Some people will be like, `Oh, you're so fast,' but I'm thinking I could go faster. You want to push yourself faster, you want to push yourself to go hard, but your leg's not there. It's all a time process. That's what brings me peace a little bit. I know I can't do it now, but if I keep working, I'll be able to do it again in the future."

She learned that the hard way.

During her freshman year at Owings Mills, she tore the ACL and the meniscus in her left knee. They healed fine over time.

This injury frustrates Awodipe more than the other, because she doesn't have much time left in her high school career. After leading the Titans to the state semifinals both years since New Town became a varsity program, she wants to win - and finally keep - the Class 1A state championship. (The Titans won the title in 2005 but had to vacate it because they had a geographically ineligible player.)

She's willing to play through the pain.

"Advil and ice, they're my two best friends right now," said Awodipe, who also relaxes by practicing with the electric guitar. She plays in a friend's rock band.

New Town coach Pam Wright expresses no doubt that Awodipe will make a full recovery.

"She's very intelligent and she knows what she has to do to get back," Wright said. "She's handled it in a mature fashion. We would talk about it just like two adults talking about it. She's had one before and she knows what it takes."

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