Down, But Not Out
by Lucas James Mack
'The ball is going to flatten for everyone at some point,' Sarah Keeler says.
For Keeler, that point came sooner than expected. The sophomore center's dreams of a long and prosperous UW playing career came to a crashing halt last March, as her left knee gave out for the sixth and final time just days prior to the team's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Wisconsin-Green Bay.
No amount of rehabilitation could heal the knee enough to get Keeler back onto the court; her playing days were over.
Keeler, however, refused to give up the game entirely, knowing that she could contribute in ways other than on the court, and returned this season as a student assistant coach. It's an unfamiliar role for Keeler, but she is finding that she can just as much a part of the team from the bench as she was on the court.
'I still want to be out there and it's hard to watch sometimes, but I'm happy to still be a part of this team in any way I can,' Keeler says. 'It's different being on the other side of the game, because I'm not quite a coach and I'm not quite a player. My role has definitely changed.'
The ability to change can be hard, but Keeler is driven by her teammates, who have learned to count on Keeler for encouragement.
'I couldn't ask for a better group a girls to be around,' Keeler says. 'We have so much love for each other and our friendship will be for a lifetime. They know that they can look to me for an encouraging word when they get down.'
Keeler pours her heart into basketball, even if all it has given back is repeated knee surgeries and endless hours of rehab.
The roots of Keeler's love for the game lie in Pendleton, Ore., where a young Keeler made a name for herself as a standout prep at Pendleton High School. After four times being named a first-team all-conference selection, and ranking among the all-time greats in school history in nearly every statistical category, Keeler was a star in her hometown, shining with a brightness that even a portentous knee injury her senior season couldn't dim. Locals, of course, envisioned Keeler leading the Oregon Ducks or Oregon State Beavers to Pac-10 titles, but Keeler had ideas of her own.
'I grew up in a small town and there was a lot of pressure to stay in-state,' explains Keeler. 'I was close to going to Oregon, but I came up here to Seattle and knew right away that this was the place for me.'
The fans and teammates at Hec Edmundson Pavilion made Keeler right at home, welcoming her with a sense of friendship that went beyond the court.
Watching the women's basketball team play, Keeler felt, was like watching the extension of friendships continue in front of the thousands of fans.
'Everyone comes here from different walks of life, but we all have the same goals and the friendships that we make will never be lost,' she says. 'When I first came to this team, Kellie Dalan and I became friends and have been really close ever since. That is something that I will never forget.'
Remembering the past allows us to cherish the present, and Keeler has not let the years of hard work and determination pass her by. She has not forgotten the pain and the agony of six knee surgeries, but would do it all again to be able to relive those special bonding experiences on the court.
'My first knee injury in high school was hard to deal with, but I rehabbed as much as I could, because all I wanted to do was play,' she recalls. 'I would ride the stationary bike for what seemed like thousands of miles and I sometimes questioned what the point was, but realizing I would be able to play again made all those hours well worth it.'
Keeler made the most of her time on the court, knowing that the future was never guaranteed, and that she could only control what she accomplished in the present. It's a belief she continues to hold true today.
'I want to contribute anyway I can,' Keeler says. 'I didn't come in here thinking that I would be a big scorer, but I liked to mix it up and bring a sense of toughness to this team. I'm not afraid to mix it up.'
Even as she finds her role on the team 'mixed-up,' Keeler still finds ways to contribute.
'When everyone is bringing their best to this team, it is really fun to watch, because it's really good basketball,' she says. 'We have a young team and they all know what it means to work hard all the time. When that happens, we are going to have great success as a team.'
As a young Husky team creates its own memories on the court, Keeler cherishes those from her playing career.
'My favorite memory was last year against Cal at home,' she says. 'I remember hitting some shots that I wasn't making during the week. Also against USC was also special, because Kayla had just had her heart problem and we had just lost to UCLA. When we played the Trojans, everyone wanted to get a win for Kayla. We were running on empty, be we were not going to give up. No one had to say anything; it was unspoken.'
Some mark success by wins and losses, others by the amount of glory attributed to personal achievement, but those things come and go with the changing of the seasons. True success is determined by the legacy one leaves behind, and what one makes of the opportunities they are given.
'I want to help the girls on the team out anyway I can,' Keeler says. 'I want to coach someday, and I know that what I have learned here as a player - and now being sort of on the coaching side of things - will help me do a good job.'
Sarah Keeler is wrong. The ball can't flatten for her - she is too pumped up for what still lies ahead.