After a breakout sophomore season in 2015-16 that saw her become a key piece of the Quakers' starting lineup, Lauren Whitlatch entered her junior season expecting to be a key piece for a Penn women's basketball team which hadn't lost a single rotation member to graduation the year before. But the Quakers' plan of having the same starting lineup for two seasons straight was derailed in January, when Whitlatch tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in practice.
An ACL tear is possibly an athlete's biggest nightmare. It's frequently a non-contact injury, so it can happen at any time. Jumping, landing, twisting, turning, planting, shifting, bending, and running are actions all athletes perform on a regular basis. They are also all actions that can tear one's ACL. For Whitlatch, like for so many others, it happened seemingly out of the blue.
"It was on the fastbreak," Whitlatch recalled. "I was going back on defense, and I started shuffling back, and all of a sudden I felt like — kind of like a crack."
Oftentimes, athletes know instantly that their ACL is torn. Many athletes describe feeling and hearing the dreaded "pop," and in many cases it is extremely painful. Whitlatch was able to walk off the court, and was hoping for good fortune — which she'd had, up to that point, for her entire life.
"I'd never really been injured at all, literally never been in the training room for anything. Like, I didn't know what an injury was."
Whitlatch had carved out an important role on a very talented Red and Blue team. A huge threat from beyond the arc, she was instrumental in spacing the floor for Penn's star post duo of Sydney Stipanovich (who graduated after the 2016-17 season) and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Michelle Nwokedi. But even beyond her shooting ability, Whitlatch had been leaned on as a major contributor on both sides of the ball. And suddenly, Penn was no longer able to lean on her.
"She gets hurt — she's starting for a year and a half, and she gets hurt last year when we're trying to make a championship run," coach Mike McLaughlin reflected. "It was deflating for her."
That Ivy League championship run was ultimately successful, and despite her absence on the court, Whitlatch was still determined to contribute the entire way.
"We had a season to finish," she said. "Although my role changed, it was still [important] being a part of the team and helping them when they needed something, or giving that little extra push."
Of course, helping the team from the sidelines couldn't quite replace the feeling of pouring in three-pointers.
"It's always tough," Whitlatch admitted. "You always want to be out on the court, you always want to be giving your most, making the extra push, start sweating a little."
Now, Whitlatch and her smooth shooting stroke are back, and she feels 100 percent. Her coach couldn't be happier.
"We had a lot of conversations [after the injury, saying,] 'You'll get back bigger and stronger, and your role will still be here, and we need you,'" McLaughlin remembers. "And she worked really hard... she's made a remarkable recovery."
But for McLaughlin, having Whitlatch back is about more than her shooting and defense.
"She's Lauren. She's the best teammate you could possibly have. She's got command, she's got a presence about her. She's probably one of the nicer kids I've ever been a part of coaching, and I'm so excited for her."
Whitlatch is excited too, and she's hungrier than ever to help bring Penn a third straight Ivy League title and potentially its first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
"I'm definitely [hungrier]," she said. "A lot of that has to do with the injury, and with [it being my] senior year."
Whitlatch has one season left to wear the Red and Blue, and after her previous one was cut short, she's going to cherish this last go-around more than anything.
"The biggest thing is, don't take anything for granted, and give it 110% on the floor each day," Whitlatch said. "Because you never know what's gonna happen — those uncontrollables. It's more about what you can control each day."
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