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Grays, Millender return to the court after long recoveries

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(Photo courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

(Photo courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

(Photo courtesy of DePaul Athletics)


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Ask any competitive athlete who’s ever sustained a long-term injury at one point during their career to describe the emotions that accompany being indefinitely sidelined, and they might use adjectives like “dejected,” “isolated,” “helpless,” or “tentative” to describe the arduous road to recovery.

DePaul Blue Demons Mart’e Grays and Ashton Millender of the women’s basketball team were no exception last season when both players grew all too familiar with overcoming this type of adversity. But they are finally healthy, and having already combined for 65 points through DePaul’s first two regular season games, the pair of returning Blue Demons definitely seem poised to make up for lost time.

As is well-documented, the 6’2 forward Grays missed the entire 2016-17 basketball schedule with a torn Achilles, an injury that was as painful as it was debilitating for DePaul’s number 35. Millender eventually joined her teammate and close friend on the disabled list in December, when she became afflicted with shin splints, which got progressively worse during the month of November.

So unlike most off-seasons, the two DePaul juniors devoted themselves to tailored workout plans this past summer, as they persevered through the rehabilitation requirements in anticipation of a return to action this autumn.

“My summer was more of me just getting the strength back into my calf, and my Achilles basically. Just a lot of recovery, a lot of rehab, just, you know, just being patient basically,” Grays said.

Junior forward Mart’e Grays. (Photo courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

“Yeah, rehab was [about] four times a week. So that’s just me pushing it hard those days and then the remaining days I was either doing mobility (exercises) to get my ankle back to its natural state of mobility. I was just working hard those four days and that was just basically going at the calf, at my hips, at my quads, basically, my whole left leg that was just weaker, and trying to strengthen that backup,” she said.

Although Mart’e is thrilled to be competing on the hardwood again; thanks in large part to her own determination, she expresses gratitude to Dr. Dave McAuliffe, DePaul’s Assistant Director of Sports Medicine. Grays acknowledges that Dr. McAuliffe treated her with the utmost care, and she also includes the significant roles played by her physical therapists, who encouraged her during any moments where she may have lacked the necessary inspiration.

“I really want to thank Kristen and Brett, my physical therapists. They got me through a lot. They kept my mind strong and also my strength and conditioning coach, she kept me grounded and just focused on what I needed to do, and she always was in my ear. “T’e, you’re strong, you’ve got this”. Especially doing my phase tests where I had to get back into playing, because you got to pass those (tests), and she was always right beside (me) saying, “T’e, you got this, you can overcome anything,” Grays said.

“I would also like to thank, Dave. You know he helped me out; he still helps me out with exercising and stuff,” she said.

There are always question marks though, whenever an athlete returns from such a strenuous injury, like a torn Achilles. The question as to whether the player will have full trust in their body’s ability to withstand the physical strain of playing in a basketball game, or an entire season, is one that can only be answered by time.

But Mart’e’s head coach, for one, believes she’s already had the chance to work out any kinks in practice and during the preseason. In fact, Coach Bruno has so much faith in where Grays is at in terms of physical shape, that he believes she has a legitimate opportunity to be among the most prolific rebounders in the Big East this season.

“She’s got the potential to be the leading rebounder in the Big East, and one of the leading rebounders in the nation, so those are areas where we just need her back and she’s showing sign,” Bruno said.

Compared to Grays, the nature of Millender’s injury was different, and DePaul’s Guard was also close to full health at the conclusion of last season. Therefore, Millender’s workout regime was not necessarily as focused on tending to the shin that forced her to miss months of action.

In the offseason, Millender continued to work on her overall core strength. By strengthening her core muscles, the likelihood that she will re-injure her shin is lowered because the rest of her body will be better prepared to balance the physical stresses that come with competing athletically at such a high level.  The Glenwood, Illinois native also spent countless hours on the court this summer shooting around and shaking the rust off her hands.

Junior guard Ashton Millender (Photo: DePaul Athletics)

“I didn’t have an injury like (Mart’e), so I was practicing. I made the smart decision to redshirt instead of trying to come back into the season after missing so many games, so [my summer] was more just [about] staying in shape. I mean of course, I worked on shooting, dribbling like the fundamentals of basketball. Now it’s just like getting back into shape after sitting down (for) so long.,” Millender said.

And as Bruno indicates, Millender’s return to the Blue Demons lineup provides the team with an added dimension because of her efficiency as a three-point shooter. Having her healthy and back on the floor allows DePaul to play a more versatile brand of offense, because Millender’s ability to score from beyond the arc will give the opposition another threat to worry about.

“Ashton is really key. She is as key to getting back here as is Mart’e. She’s just a really really key player. I mean she’s a really good guard. She was one of our most competitive guards. She is our best three-point shooter. We do shoot threes, it’s not all we do, but the three is important to us, and she’s a really excellent three point maker, not just three point shooter. So you know it’s just really important to get her back,” Bruno said.

While Grays and Millender both want to thrive individually, especially coming off injury-riddled seasons a year ago, their primary source of motivation is always to achieve team success first. And Coach Bruno never wants his players to abandon that mentality.

“Coach of the year to me is best team of the year. I always voted for the best team, so it’s a team effort. It’s a team award to me,” he said.

To his point about individual awards, Bruno introduced a tradition many years ago, which continues to evolve as time goes on. And it is a tradition that serves to promote a team-first approach.

More specifically, there is a club policy in place that obliges the recipient of any individual award the Big East conference presents, to prepare a creative gift for the rest of her Blue Demon teammates as a way to thank them for their help.

“That’s kind of my thought process if you are ever receiving an individual award. So we have a tradition here, (to) do something, and the challenge is that you’re not going to do (just anything) the challenge is how creative can you get. How many cookies can you make? Or let’s do something else? Can you come up with another idea please?” Bruno said.

Admittedly, Grays and Millender are both eager to win a Big East Player of The Week award, or two, because they have gift ideas for their teammates that they were forced to sit on due to their respective injuries. However, they were both pretty tight-lipped about what the surprised would be. In the beginning, at least. Ashton Millender eventually caved and disclosed that her surprise may or may not involve cinnamon roll muffins as part of a mouthwatering recipe that features several other components.

She asked me not to reveal all the details, but for the sake of her teammates’ taste buds, I hope that Millender wins the Big East player of the week at least once this season.

 

 

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Grays, Millender return to the court after long recoveries