The countdown was reaching the end, the buildup to the college basketball debut for Lauren Garrison.
It was one day before Garrison and the Rockhurst University women’s basketball team played its first game last October – an exhibition loss to Southeast Missouri State.
Toward the end of that practice, Garrison did something she has done probably thousands of times in her basketball career: She drove into the lane and put up a mid-range jump shot.
But this time was different.
She came down and landed on a teammate’s foot in the crowded lane.
“It popped really loud,” Garrison said of her left knee. “I knew it was serious.”
The aftermath was a blur of life-changing events for the 2018 Branson High School graduate … and marked the start of another countdown she is currently in the middle of.
First came the initial diagnosis of a tear in her meniscus, with the need for further examination to be certain.
A torn meniscus wouldn’t have been the worst news – surgery to repair that typically carries with it a six-week recovery process.
“I was feeling pretty good about it,” Garrison remembers.
By chance, Chad Efird, a longtime family friend of the Garrisons and an orthopedic surgeon based in Branson, was in Kansas City at the time, and he conducted an examination and came to the same diagnosis that a later MRI confirmed: a torn ACL.
Instead of a six-week recovery, the surgery to repair a torn ACL carries with it a six-month absence.
The ACL is a four-letter word for athletes facing knee injuries. There was nothing easy about hearing the news.
Garrison knew plenty about the injury and the entire process. She has been around plenty of athletes who went through ACL tears during her time as a four-year, three-sport standout at Branson.
“I never thought it was the worst thing ever,” Garrison said. “It wasn’t like I thought it was the end of the world or anything.
“It was definitely tough to hear it at first, but I know my family and friends and teammates were so supportive throughout the whole thing. They were really encouraging that I would come back and be better than ever.”
That’s where Garrison is now. She’s gone through the surgery, the rehab during the bleak winter period in Kansas City where she often had to navigate through the snow and ice while wearing a bulky brace on the knee, and has been cleared for everything but contact sports.
Garrison even ran a 5K race over the Fourth of July, with no problems or ill-effects felt from the procedure.
“It’s the furthest I’ve run since (the injury),” she said, then adding with a laugh, “I ran the whole thing, ran slow at some points, but it was good.”
It’s been a long road for Garrison, who was a mainstay for Branson’s softball, basketball and soccer teams throughout her high school years.
She was a two-time all-area, all-district and all-conference selection for basketball, a two-time all-district and all-conference pick as a goalkeeper for the girls’ soccer team, and was twice honored as all-conference and all-area in softball.
As a senior, Garrison averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on the basketball court.
She reached back to her high school days after getting the news about her injury, calling Branson girls’ basketball coach Kip Bough, who told Garrison about his sister, who twice suffered torn ACL injuries.
That conversation came on the same day she received the diagnosis, and it helped her come to grips with the injury.
“(Bough) told me about how that helped (his sister) build her character throughout the whole thing,” Garrison said. “Even by the end of the day – I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason, and by the time I talked to some people, I was like, ‘OK, I can’t change it, so let’s go. I have PT set up and have my surgery set up,’ and I was ready to fight it.”
A bit of good news came during the surgery, where doctors expected to find a torn meniscus in need of repair. But the meniscus was intact, making the recovery a little less taxing.
Garrison’s outlook also focused on one of the positives from this all. She received a medical redshirt year where she can get accustomed to the college life – including academics and being around the basketball program.
“There are some definitely some positives that came out of the ACL tear and surgery,” Garrison said. “Having surgery on a torn ACL isn’t really a positive, but definitely I got to practice and get accustomed to college ball and see how it is played, before the injury.
“I was able to watch it all year and get comfortable with all of our plays, I know a good chunk of our plays without even being on the court.”
On the academic side, Garrison has been pre-admitted to the physical therapy school at Rockhurst.
She was able to see physical therapy from the patient’s side of the equation, in addition to being on scholarship for five years of college.
“I think anytime you have to sit back and observe and become more of a student of the game, that can be a real help,” Rockhurst coach Larry Park said.
Park raved about Garrison’s athletic abilities and how excited the staff was to see how polished she was in the preseason workouts last fall.
“I knew she was a very good athlete, I was very well-aware of that coming in,” Park said. “But I did not know she was as good a basketball player as she is. She’s pretty darn good from about 15 feet in. Her teammates were struck by her athleticism and the fact that she can finish up.
“We were pleasantly surprised, as far as her basketball abilities.”
Park said an even-bigger aspect was Garrison’s approach and willingness to tackle the surgery and rehab, driven to come back stronger than ever.
“Her attitude is outstanding,” Park said. “She’s just a great kid, a really great kid. From that standpoint, it couldn’t be better. She’s handled it beautifully.”
Garrison has been cleared to do virtually everything but play basketball.
She ran the 5K over the summer, and earlier in the spring was seen right alongside the other Rockhurst players, working as servers in the Diamond Club seats for Royals’ games at Kauffman Stadium, part of fundraising efforts for the Hawks’ program.
“At this point, I’m expecting no limitations,” Garrison said. “Most experts – PTs and doctors, will say that you often come back even stronger. It’s not promised, obviously.
“As long as I wait until I’m cleared, I should be good to go for the next four years.”
In the Rockhurst women’s basketball community, Garrison hasn’t been alone in her battle to come back from an ACL injury.
Jessina Rada redshirted last season after tearing her ACL in a state-tournament game in Nebraska in the March of her senior year of high school, and Destiny Harris also sat out the season after suffering a similar injury at Rockhurst.
There were other injuries, too, one player with a torn hamstring and another recovering from arm surgery.
“We call us ‘The Gimp Squad,’ ” Garrison said with a laugh, then talked about what a great resource Rada has been throughout the process.
“She is a fighter. She was there for me, and she comforted me every time I needed it.
“We were always on the bench laughing together. … We were all right there at the end of the bench, watching together.”
Garrison said the sidelined players didn’t necessarily “compete” with each other during the rehab process, but were always there together.
“We are all our biggest supporters,” Garrison said. “I always loved seeing Jessina. She could have played, but at the end of practice, she’d be running sprints. No one else would be there, but that was one of the biggest things, to see her running.”
Garrison said this was the first time she has been struck down by a serious injury. She has a history of rolling her ankles in various sports, but would just “tape it up and move on.”
During the long hours of rehab, working out and physical therapy, she has had plenty of time to reflect on things.
“One thing I’ve really had to buy into is that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “You don’t always see the reason, but I know that it’s taught me things like patience.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve had to learn patience throughout this whole thing. I’ll start walking, and then 3 weeks into that, I’ll be like, ‘When do I get to run? When do I get to squat?’ So patience, for sure.”
Garrison was quick to mention the many different people and organizations that helped support her throughout the journey, from the day of the injury, then following the surgery and during the arduous, often-lonely rehab period.
“My church has been very supportive, they are always sending me notes, then sent me a care box,” Garrison said. “That was a big thing. You definitely have to rely on the people that you have around you and the faith that you have.
“There’s a lot of lessons there.”