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Healthy for the home stretch

Janee Thompson's return this week gives Whitney Young (Chicago, Ill.) considerable depth. Glenn Nelson for ESPN.com

Perhaps nothing quite captures the rollercoaster ride Whitney Young's (Chicago, Ill.) girl's basketball team has been on better than the team's Dec. 11 game against Trinity (River Forest, Ill.). The Dolphins (10-2) stormed out to a big lead early in the second quarter, but then turned around and gave up 10 straight points, leaving their halftime lead at just seven.

Corry Irvin's team came out of the break with its signature pressure defense, creating 15 turnovers in the third quarter to open the game up. The 60-45 final score isn't the telling part -- the swings are.

The Dolphins haven't had their full team available since winning the school's first state title in 2008.

That's about to change.

Just this week junior guard Janee Thompson was cleared to play after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on June 1, 2010. Thompson's first game was Young's Jan. 12 home conference victory over Crane (Chicago, Ill.), 68-35. Thompson played just 12 minutes, according to assistant coach Mac Irvin III, also Corry's husband. She tallied six points and six assists in those limited minutes

"She missed a few (easy layups)." Mac Irvin said. "I'm just happy to have her back. Practice is a lot better with her. It's getting very competitive."

All teams have to persevere through injuries, but Irvin's team has suffered more than its fair share.

The first major injury happened on June 23, 2009, when Chanise Jenkins, the team's fiery DePaul-bound point guard, suffered a partially torn ACL in her right knee. That injury kept the No. 64 senior in the 2011 class out most of the Dolphins' 28-3 season, including the two losses on a West Coast trip to Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), the team that finished the season No. 1 in the nation, and Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.). She returned, but played just four games last season and never regained her previous form. The end result was a 10-point loss at the hands of Bolingbrook (Bolingbrook, Ill.) in the state championship game for the second year in a row.

Truly adding insult to injury was the status of the team's tallest player, 6-foot Sinclair Cunningham, who was ruled ineligible for the rest of last season, due to academics, just two days before the team made its trip to California.

Sinclair may not be the presence in the paint that Whitney Young stars Danielle Campbell and Amanda Thompson, both drafted into the WNBA after college, were for the 2002-2006 Dolphins. But her length is key to her team being able to rebound with elite teams.

"It's a maturity thing and focus," Corry Irvin said of Cunningham's situation.

Again at the start of this season, the Dolphins were without Cunningham, still the team's tallest player, for similar reasons. She's scheduled to return next week.

"She's made a lot of progress," Corry Irvin said. "She's starting to understand ... not just to be eligible but for her life."

In mid-October, Irvin lost junior wing Alexis Loyd to shin splints. She was cleared to play on Nov. 25, but her conditioning lagged behind the rest of the team. Young's style of play is fast and furious, making conditioning paramount.

Janee Thompson's return will draw some of the same parallels to Jenkins and Loyd. Being athletic and cleared to play doesn't necessarily mean a player is ready to go. But Irvin has been through this and has the leadership of players who have walked down the same path to encourage Thompson to put in the extra work to catch up with her teammates. And when that happens, it will be the first time Linnae Harper, No. 55 Michigan State signee Kiana Johnson, Jenkins, Loyd, Sinclair and Thompson have all played together during the high school season.

"I think we're definitely different from last year," Corry Irvin said. "In the perspective of, last year I thought we had hit our peak a bit early and this year I don't think we've hit our stride."

Part of that delay also includes the shin splints to the Dolphins' long-range specialist, Victoria Thompson. She was out of action and training starting in mid-October and returned Dec. 20 for the team's trip to Milwaukee and Detroit.

"I think we'll peak somewhere near the end of the end of the month," Corry Irvin said.

That would mean that Young is at its best right around the time Super-Sectionals come calling and, after that, the seemingly inevitable rematch with Bolingbrook, a team many saw as nearly invincible in early December with its plethora of major college prospects. That intimidation factor has died down some after the Raiders suffered two losses in the Nike Tournament of Champions, to current No. 1 Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.) and No. 3 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Part of the Dolphins' budding confidence has to do with the team's short-handed trip to California last season. Irvin said it taught her players that they can compete with teams at that elite level.

Unfortunately for Young and Bolingbrook, they will not get their state championship rematch for the fourth consecutive year. According to the preliminary sectional pairings changes announced by the Illinois High School Association, Irving was told the teams would play in the semifinal round if both took care of business.

Either way, the game could prove to be a huge matchup for not only a state championship, but also for a potential top 10 national ranking. And the Dolphins are just happy to have a healthy team, looking forward to competing as best as they can, regardless of what that means in the polls. The team has competed well nationally, compiling a 60-5 record, but has hope that they can end this season with a win.

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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. He is a member of the McDonald's All-American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at chris.hansen@espn.com.

Follow us on Twitter, where you can ask questions and get instant updates.

Become a fan of the site on Facebook and get updates in your news stream.

Discuss this on our Message Board

Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. He is a member of the McDonald's All-American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at chris.hansen@espn.com.