Nobody knows how word leaked out one day last January, but it wasn't long before the news started bouncing around the halls at Del Valle (Texas) and circulating in classrooms. The time had come, students told each other.
Tonight was the night.
Shanay Washington was back.
Before the school day ended, widespread plans had been made to attend that evening's game against Clemens. Girls' basketball coach Tawni Angel could feel the buzz building as she watched the stands fill during warm-ups. And it made her nervous.
After all, the rumors had been exaggerated. Washington was only slated to see two minutes of action per quarter in her first game back from a torn ACL suffered nearly seven months earlier. The last thing Angel wanted was for her star to overexert herself as she rode the wave of the crowd's excitement.
Angel would have preferred a more under-the-radar return, but there was no keeping Washington off the floor at that point. So Angel stuck to the script and the fans roared when Washington stood up to check in with two minutes left in the first quarter. They barely had time to sit down before jumping back to their feet when Washington stole a pass and raced toward the hoop.
But in her excitement, her layup attempt completely missed the mark.
"The poor kid wanted it so bad that everything just sped up for her and she bricked it," Angel says. "She was going so fast it looked like she could have gone up and dunked it."
"I got a foul called though," Washington adds. "I wasn't fouled at all, really. The ref totally bailed me out. But at least I can tell people I missed it because I got fouled."
The fans cheered just the same as Washington calmed her nerves and sank the two free throws. Washington was in the book. She really was back.
She continued to play sparingly for the rest of the season as she worked to regain the form she exhibited prior to her injury. Entering her senior season this winter, Washington is rated the nation's No. 64 recruit in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100, No. 7 among Texans.
Her national stature took a hit in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of recruit rankings because of her injury. But a quick look at the colleges that offered her a scholarship says all you need to know about her talent, as Washington selected Baylor over the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
Not only that, but just a month before suffering the ACL tear in her left knee at an Atlanta tournament, Washington had a breakout
performance at the 2007 USA Youth Development Festival in Colorado. In a 35-player field consisting primarily of stars from the Class of 2008, Washington put on an electrifying performance as one of the youngest players in attendance.
It was that anything-is-possible potential that had her classmates so excited about her return last winter. Del Valle has built a strong girls' basketball following thanks to 14 consecutive playoff appearances and a string of Division I recruits, and it's been clear since her freshman
season that Washington was the program's next superstar.
The 6-foot guard averaged 18.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game in her first season and followed that with 20.2 points, 12 rebounds and 3.2 steals as a sophomore. The Cardinals went a
combined 63-6 in those two seasons, so Washington's talents were no mystery to Del Valle's opponents.
For that reason, pre-game warm-ups became her favorite part of the rehab process. Though Washington wasn't cleared to play until January, she dressed for every game and warmed up prior to most. Not only did it give her a chance to dribble and shoot around with her teammates, the Cardinals discovered Washington's presence alone gave them a
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"We knew for most of the season there was no chance she was going to play, but she turned out to be a huge psychological weapon for us," Angel says.
"To see the faces of our opponents as they looked down to our end of the floor and watched Shanay, it was priceless. You could almost see them glancing at each other and wondering, 'Is she going to play?' Apparently just the thought of Shanay is enough to get people off their game."
The intimidation factor amused Washington, but her real motivation as she endured four hours of rehab each day was the chance to get one more shot at the playoffs. The Cardinals posted a 30-1 mark and won the District 26-4A title during her freshman season before suffering a
shocking loss in their first playoff game. After defending the district title her sophomore year, Del Valle won a single playoff game before getting bounced in the regional quarterfinals.
Last year, she sat out the team's first playoff game with the
understanding she could play in the next round if Del Valle advanced. Instead, the Cardinals lost by seven to Pflugerville Connally.
"The seniors were devastated after that loss, but I think Shanay took it hardest of all," Angel says. "It was extremely hard on her not being able to play. But she could make a career out of this game, so there was no way we were going to risk anything. And in the long run, I think she'll be better for having gone through this."
Before tearing her ACL, Washington played with one philosophy: attack the rim. Like Dwyane Wade, Washington made her living slicing through the paint and going up strong. But her game broadened as she went through rehab. She learned the intricacies of coming off screens and added a step-back jumper to her repertoire. She remains as fearless as ever, but now she's even more lethal.
Add in the motivation from three years of playoff disappointment and Washington appears poised for her best year yet.
"I really want a state championship, and this is the last chance," Washington says. "I want to come out of my senior year on top."
No doubt the excitement is already spreading throughout Del Valle's halls and classrooms.