RIRIE — Ririe High School senior point guard Maddie Johnson knew before finishing the 2017 2A District 6 cross-country championship girls race that something was wrong.
She felt unusual pain in her right hip during that race on Ririe's home course, but the full effect didn't hit her until later.
"Afterwards, I couldn’t walk on it," Johnson said. "I couldn't run or walk. It hurt too bad."
An x-ray revealed that Johnson had torn the labrum — the ring of cartilage following the outside rim of the socket of her hip joint — in her right hip. She learned the tear occurred due to hip impingement, defined by the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City as 'abnormal and wearing contact between the ball and socket of the hip joint.' The swiveling and rotating of the hip can damage the ball and socket joint during hip impingement. In Johnson's case, the ball part of her ball and socket joint was pointed and scraping against the socket. Johnson was told she likely had hip impingement in both hips for years, and her right hip had worsened to the point of a labral tear.
"I've played basketball since I could dribble," Johnson said. "My first thought was, 'I can’t be hurt bad enough I can’t play basketball.'"
After visiting two doctors in Idaho Falls and a specialist at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Johnson was told surgery was needed. The average recovery time for the surgery, which Johnson learned was a rare procedure for people younger than 40, was six months. The question Johnson had to answer was, when to have surgery?
The doctors told her she could play with the labral tear, but 'it would be awful.' Having surgery immediately meant she'd miss her entire junior season. Postponing until spring meant missing summer activities, basketball camps and tournaments and fall sports.
Ririe's starting point guard chose to play.
"At that time, I had only two more years left of high school," Johnson said. "This was my team. These were my girls."
Upon learning of her situation, Ririe head girls basketball coach Damien Smith emphasized to Johnson that surgery was a personal decision she and her family should make. Still, he couldn't help thinking about possibly being without one of two returning starters from his 2017 2A state championship team.
"The worst part was for her, just knowing how hard she’s worked and how much basketball means to her," Smith said.
Johnson didn't miss a game her junior season, getting through by attending physical therapy three to four times per week and taking Ibuprofen. She finished the season averaging 10.1 points per game and leading the 2A state runner-up Bulldogs in assists (3.5), rebounds (6) and blocks (1.9) per game all while changing the way she played.
"In all honesty, it was awful," Johnson said. "I think it actually changed my shot because I tried not to jump off that leg. I couldn’t move the way I wanted to. On defense, I was definitely slower."
Smith, who kept Johnson's injury under wraps during the season, said a junior college coach was astonished to learn of her torn labrum after watching film from her junior season. Smith could tell by her expression during games if she needed to be subbed out, and he said he is still amazed at how she persevered.
"I’d have to pull her out and ask her, ‘are you okay?’ and she’d usually say, ‘I’m fine,’" Smith said. "It was just her competitiveness. I can’t explain what she did. There’s no explanation, especially with the amount of minutes she played."
Following surgery April 9, Johnson spent the first month on crutches. She progressed to riding a stationary bike and walking before being cleared to jog in the third month. She was cautious during outdoor activities and attended every Ririe summer basketball tournament except one. The Bulldogs not only played without Johnson, but without post Halley Guthrie, who had ankle surgery.
Smith said he believes the Bulldogs (3-1), who graduated no one from last year's team, benefited from that experience and Johnson became a more vocal leader. Although she hated not playing, Johnson said she took Kobe Bryant's 'student of the game approach' to being on the bench.
"Sitting on the bench, it's a different perspective," Johnson said. "You definitely see different things you don't see on the court."
Pausing, she laughed before continuing, "Now I can see why Coach Smith yells at me."
After five and a half months, Johnson was cleared to do 'anything she felt she could handle.' She said she suspected she drove Smith crazy asking to unlock the gym so she could work on her shot, and those hours have paid off.
"I can't believe how much smoother she plays," Smith said. "Hopefully she has a good year."
The overwhelming feeling her first time in a gym upon being cleared was relief.
"I'd forgotten what it felt like to practice with no pain whatsoever," Johnson said. "It's so nice to walk into practice and not worry about my hip."
Teammate and close friend, junior Indee Williams, said Johnson has noticeable enthusiasm this season and reminds her teammates to not complain.
"All last season, I knew she was hurting," Williams said. "I think she's showed how people can work through their injuries. Now I know I can go through hard things because she can do hard things."
Johnson's completed recovery comes during a particularly stacked year for 2A. Defending champion Soda Springs (whom Ririe plays twice in the regular season) returns three starters and has won 29 consecutive games and the Nuclear Conference is again anticipated to be intensively competitive.
Along with fellow senior captain Anna Boone, Johnson is Ririe's lone remaining starter from the 2017 state championship team. She described winning the state title as the 'best feeling in the world,' and said her choice to play last season was worth it considering the Bulldogs went 22-5 and took second at state despite graduating seven from the 2016-17 team.
Johnson credits her mom — her childhood coach who she called 'a super example of strength' — and her teammates for helping her get through this last year. They are also inspirations for this season's goal of a state championship.
"This group of seniors, we've been playing together since fourth grade," Johnson said. "I think we surprised a lot of people last year. This year, we're known because we have everyone back. Hopefully we can end on a good note."
The last reminder of Johnson's surgery is numbness on the outside of her right leg, something doctors told her may eventually go away. She has no restrictions otherwise, and Johnson said she has not felt nervous or scared at all since being cleared. She said she has become mentally stronger this last year, and her passion for basketball is the strongest it has ever been.
"Anything I do, I'm all in," Johnson said. "I hope it doesn't happen again, but if it comes down to it, I could do it again. I've always had the love of the game. Not being able to play for so long, it took it to a whole new level."
Classification changes gave 5A District 5-6 a complete overhaul for 2018-19. Bonneville and Hillcrest, winners of three of the last four 5A District 5-6 titles, are now competing in the 4A classification. As they exit, first-year school Thunder Ridge joins.
With so many changes, second-year Rigby coach Troy Shippen said the district title is anyone's for the taking.
"Whoever wants it is gonna get it, pretty much," Shippen said.
The Trojans (2-2) graduated four players from last season and have five seniors this year. Among those returning for Rigby are Summer Dabell, Emma Shippen and Tylie Jones, a sophomore who is averaging 12 points per game thus far.
Madison (1-2), has much youth this winter. The Bobcats graduated Hannah Wilson, who averaged 11.8 points and seven rebounds per game and was named the 5A/4A High Country Conference Player of the Year last year and is now playing at Big Bend Community College. Furthermore, according to IdahoSports.com, Bethany Dow moved to Preston.
First-year program Thunder Ridge is also 1-2 through Wednesday. Similar to the Bobcats, the Titans are also young. According to IdahoSports.com, the Titans have only one senior: Sidney Belliston. Sophomore Lauren Davenport has had quite the start thus far for Thunder Ridge, averaging 15.3 points per game.
The consensus among 4A District 6 coaches is that Bonneville is the early season district title favorite. The Bees (3-0) graduated Kalli Harris, Paige Nelson and 5A District 5-6 Player of the Year Cortney McDonald (12 ppg, 5.1 rpg) from last year's 24-2 team which won the 5A state consolation trophy. Sadie Lott, Brooklyn Cunningham, Maunayia Harrigfeld and Sage Leishman return from that team, however, and head coach Amy Wood said there are also some newcomers to varsity she's excited to watch.
"The kids stepping into those roles, they are great basketball players," Wood said. "I’m just excited for these kids to get better. As far as right now, I’m just one game at time. One day at a time."
Blackfoot (3-0) is also a team 4A District 6 coaches said to watch after going 13-10 last season after winning five games the previous three seasons. They feature returners Olivia Arave (currently averaging 16.7 points per game), Allie Cannon and sophomore Tenleigh Smith, who had an impressive freshman season.
"This is just my opinion, but I think 4A is gonna be tougher than 5A this year," second-year Hillcrest coach Alan Sargent said.
Sargent's Knights (2-0) have numerous returning players this year including starters Livia Wood, Ashlyn Sargent and four-year varsity player Maycee Stenquist (currently averaging 16.5 points per game). Sargent said his returners gained much experience last year and put in ample work in the offseason.
"Man, we've worked really hard in practice," Sargent said. "Just a hard working defense that’s got us the wins so far."
Joining 4A this year with Bonneville and Hillcrest is Shelley, which moved up from 3A. The Russets (0-4) leave 3A having graduated Abbey Crandall and Jazmin Romero but return Avery Downs, Sydney Leal, Kassidy Arzola.
Also seeking its first win of the season is Idaho Falls (0-4), which graduated no one from last season. The Tigers' new head coach is David Vest, who has nine seniors in his first season including Kennedy Burton, Madalyn Burton and Olivia Hillam.
Vest had high praise for the Tigers so far as they learn his system.
"We like their drive, we like their passion, we like what they’re doing," Vest said.
Skyline graduated five from last season and has seven varsity returners. The Grizzlies (2-3) have three seniors: Annalise Cheret, Analee Cortez and Tanneyce Jensen. Skyline head coach Ty Keck said Jensen, however, is currently out for eight weeks with a broken leg. Keck said the Grizz are young, but one of those young players is already making her presence known. Mattie Olson, a freshman, is currently averaging 16.4 points per game.
Shelley's departure for 4A not only leaves 3A District 6 with three teams, but 1.25 state bids. The district champion will automatically qualify for state while the runner-up must win two play-in games to reach state.
This change also comes during what all three head coaches anticipate to be a particularly competitive year.
"I think it will be as balanced as our conference has been in a long time," Sugar-Salem coach Crystal Dayley said.
The Diggers graduated five from last year's 25-2 state championship team, including Kayla Luke (now at Big Bend) and Savanah Crane (Salt Lake Community College). They have four seniors this season: Sydney Bradshaw, Madi Fillmore, Macie Knapp and Lindsey Larson.
Teton head coach Shon Kunz said Sugar-Salem (2-1) is still Idaho's early season favorite in 3A.
"I would assume Sugar’s gonna be No. 1 to start with and Snake’s No 2," Kunz said. "It’s a loaded area."
Teton (2-2) graduated one player and has mostly juniors this year, including Waklee Kunz, Cambrie Streit and Aspen Lasson.
"The kids, they’ve really matured since spring," Kunz said. "They’re strong. I'm excited to see what they can do."
South Fremont (1-2) graduated four from last year's 16-13 team which made the farthest postseason run in program history by reaching the state third place game. Among the Cougars' returners are Paizlee Hobbs, Carly Hikida, Karlee Thueson and Post Register All-Area first teamer Olivia LeCheminant (currently averaging 15 points per game).
The two constants in the 2A Nuclear Conference are intense competition and state trophies, and this season's expectations are no different.
Coaches have dubbed state runner-up and two-time defending district champion Ririe the team to beat. After that, the next early season favorite is West Jefferson or Firth depending on who you ask.
West Jefferson graduated five from last year's 2A state consolation trophy winning team. The Panthers (2-1) have two returning varsity starters in Saige Moss and all-conference player of the year and Post Register All-Area first teamer Jordi Holdaway.
"Right now, it's just about buckling down and learning their roles," head coach Jalena Dixon said. "They hustle."
Firth (3-0) returns several including Abby Schiess, Hailey Gee, Jaylyn McKinnon and Kylee Barker and has considerable height as well. Head coach Sharla Cook said this year's team has a good mix of newcomers and veterans.
"We do have some great returners and then the new kids that are helping us too," Cook said. "We've got some good senior leadership then some juniors and sophomores as well."
North Fremont graduated one and returns Alexa Nedrow, Kelby Dye, Remi Litton, Ellie Miller and Dakoda Dexter from last year. The Huskies are 2-0 and have rescheduled a few games due to the overlap with North Fremont's state football run.
"It's gonna take some time to get to work the chemistry out between them," head coach Ben Lenz said.
Pat Behrens is the new coach at Salmon. Sophomores Mackay Williams and Chayla Slavin and senior Rachel Gebhardt have had solid contributions in the early going thus far for Salmon, currently 0-3.
Class 1A DI
After two years of going undefeated versus 1A DII teams and winning back-to-back state championships, Butte County moves to 1A DI this year.
The Pirates (1-2) do so having graduated seven players from that repeat state championship team. Head coach Carla Hansen said Butte County has one junior, Kelsey Isham, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores.
Challis is currently 4-0 in Kari Smith's first season. The Vikings have four seniors including Jessi Farr, who is back after missing a couple years due to an ACL tear.
"We've been working really hard in practice to get to where we are as a team," Smith said. "We talk about family all the time, trust and teamwork every day."
Class 1A DII
The departure of Butte County to 1A DI allows for a new district champion this season, and Mackay head coach Kashia Hale said she is looking forward to seeing what happens in the Rocky Mountain Conference.
"I said this last year and I'll say it again this year, I think our Rocky Mountain Conference is one of the toughest in the state," Hale said. "Butte County winning the state championship and Sho-Ban taking third, that says a lot about our conference."
Hale said the Miners (1-1) are young, but hungry, and have everyone back from last year. They have also added a sophomore and four freshmen, including freshman Trinity Seefreid (currently averaging 20 points per game).
Watersprings (0-1) is without Abigail Yadon, who is recovering from surgery during track season, but returns fellow juniors Joanna Hayes, Angie Gomez and Rylee Mathison. Of the Warriors' eight players, head coach John Yadon said three are new.
Richard Barany has returned to be head coach at Leadore (0-2). On Nov. 16, Barany said the Mustangs have two seniors and three sophomores but are expecting another sophomore and a freshman to join the team.