Bonneville's Brooklyn Cunningham hasn't played in a Bees jersey since last December, but her enthusiasm is building.
During a practice earlier this week, the senior lit up when describing what it was like to rejoin her teammates upon recovery from ACL surgery. Medically cleared in September to resume activity with no restrictions, Cunningham is still getting used to playing with a brace and sleeve on her right knee.
While the start to this basketball season isn't quite like any previous one in her career, Cunningham is grateful to be on the court and is eager for the senior season she grew up dreaming about.
"I'm so happy to play again," Cunningham said. "I'm just excited for this year. I have the best team in the world."
First-year Bonneville head coach Ryan Erikson, who comes to the Bees after three seasons at South Fremont, noticed her enthusiasm right away as her recovery progressed.
"Right when we started open gyms in September and she had the opportunity to play again, she was super excited. She has worked hard to get back where she is now," Erikson said. "I don't see her slowing down at all."
Although she's spent much of the last year with limited activity, Cunningham has remained busy since tearing her ACL in a game at Madison on Dec. 20. She had surgery shortly after the New Year, spent the next six weeks on crutches and going to physical therapy three to four times per week for six months. When she wasn't cleared to run or jump yet, she would go with her dad, Bonneville assistant coach Alan Cunningham, to the gym to shoot while standing in place.
"I'd stand on one leg," Cunningham said. "The ball would get away from me and I'd remember that I couldn't go get it."
Her unofficial return to action came in a game during a summer team camp when Erikson subbed her in for the last three seconds. Open gyms once school began, however, were her first opportunity to practice unrestricted.
Cunningham described the entire recovery process as 'very hard,' crediting her parents, coaches and teammates for picking her up on the toughest days. Her parents helped her with physical therapy, Alan would take her to the gym and her teammates would consistently check on her and include her in team activities.
One teammate whom Cunningham expressed much appreciation for is fellow senior Maddi Pettingill, who has made a comeback of her own. Pettingill has torn both ACLs in her high school career--the first as a freshman and the second on the first day of her junior year. She missed volleyball and basketball last year and was one of the first people to suspect that Cunningham tore her ACL.
"I remember when I saw her get hurt," said Pettingill, who was medically cleared in April. "She told me what happened and how it felt and I kinda knew what it was. It sounded like what I went through."
Cunningham said to this day, Pettingill has provided encouragement as well as advice.
"I really look up to her and how she's recovered," Cunningham said. "She'd answer all my questions. I'd ask her, 'Is this pain okay?' and she'd say, 'Yes. That's normal.'"
Cunningham and Pettingill enter this season having gained knowledge from being on the bench. During games last season, former Bonneville head coach Amy Wood would ask them to watch for certain things. Cunningham said she has a new perspective because she noticed minute details from the bench she never noticed before on the court, everything from how teams responded to opposing defenses to reactions after a play.
"A big thing I noticed is when someone messes up, how much it affects them and how they dwell on it," Cunningham said. "The players that don't dwell on mistakes, they do much better."
Cunningham said she has had excitement, not fear, since her return, so much so that Alan actually cautioned her to slow down shortly after she was cleared to play with no restrictions. There have been adjustments, however, as she learns to play with a brace. She said she is not as fast as she was a year ago, and she has had to build up confidence to not favor her uninjured knee so much. Pettingill said she hasn't felt any fear either, but she has gotten nervous upon hearing her knee pop during volleyball when she made contact with players.
Cunningham and Pettingill aren't the only players to return to Bonneville this season. Fellow senior Makayla Sorensen, who did not play basketball last season, is back and already making an impact, especially on the glass. Teammate and fellow senior Sadie Lott said she is 'beyond excited' to be playing with them again.
"Just talking about it gives me goosebumps," Lott said. "I can't explain it. We grew up playing together. Makayla is a very athletic person. She could play soccer and be good at it. She could play hockey and be good at it. Brooklyn and Maddi, they worked so hard over the summer."
The return of Cunningham, Pettingill and Sorensen bring Bonneville's total seniors on varsity to nine. Erikson and Lott said their returns are timely considering how competitive 4A District 6 is anticipated to be this season. Within a 24-hour span at last year's district tournament, No. 1 seeded Bonneville and No. 2 seeded Blackfoot both lost. Hillcrest defeated Skyline for the district title later that week to qualify for the 4A state tournament and Blackfoot later joined the Knights upon defeating Kuna in a play-in game.
Hillcrest graduated seven from last year's district title team, Skyline is still young this year with only two seniors while Blackfoot graduated three from last year's team which ended its best season in 14 years with the 4A state consolation trophy and a 23-5 record.
"The conference is gonna be tough," Erikson said. "Everyone is going to be battling for those two spots (to state)."
Lott said while the ending to last season has motivated her for this year, Erikson shared some words at a team retreat last weekend that put this season in perspective. He said he would not talk about the district or state tournaments, but he would talk about the fact the Bees had 40 potential practices between now and February.
That number reiterated the fact that the season the seniors had dreamed of since childhood was here at last. Lott, Pettingill and Cunningham said they still can't believe it.
"I wanted to play varsity basketball since I was little and win a state championship with all my friends," Pettingill said. "It's crazy that we're here."
"Since second grade, we'd go to tournaments and just talk about playing together when we're seniors," Cunningham added. "It seemed like it was so far away and it was never gonna get here."
Lott said the comebacks of Pettingill and Cunningham have shown her that hard work pays off, and she has gained a greater appreciation for the ability to play sports.
"Watching them go through that makes me feel like I'd rather go through that than them," Lott said. "They have been our No. 1 fans. They've shown that you can do hard things if you put your mind to it."
As for Pettingill and Cunningham, they have learned how far encouragement and persistence can go. In January, Cunningham needed assistance from her teammates to put her backpack on and pick things up for her. Now she can join them on every drill in practice.
"They have my back," Cunningham said, smiling at both the literal and figurative truth to that remark.