Gipson overcomes ACL injury to play in senior season, wins Palomar Player of the Year

Gipson overcomes ACL injury to play in senior season, wins Palomar Player of the Year

Naomi Gipson (12) dribbles past an opponent in a game against Birmingham High School, Dec. 27.

Sprinting full speed down the court, driving to the basket, shooting threes over opponents, celebrating with teammates after a win: Nothing else is quite like competing on the basketball court for California Lutheran University commit Naomi Gipson (12), and injury wasn’t going to stop her from suiting up during her last high school season.

Gipson made the varsity team at Westview in her freshman year, and averaged 6.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and a steal per game over 29 games. Coach Bob McHeffey, who had first watched her play as an eighth-grader as part of the Westview feeder team, said that he knew she would have a promising high school career.

“I knew she already had a good work ethic because I knew her family and had coached her sister,” McHeffey said. “She was tall, with guard skills and very willing to work at being a basketball player.”

Instead of continuing at Westview, however, Gipson transferred to Cathedral Catholic High School for her sophomore year.

“After a lot of talking with my parents we figured that the switch to Cathedral would be a good fit for me,” Gipson said. “It seemed like a really well-rounded school. We really liked the campus, the academics, and there were good sports programs.”

But during the season, her numbers took a slight hit, down to 6.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 0.1 blocks per game, although she added more than an assist and a steal per game. But her biggest challenge that year, Gipson said, was her social transition into a completely new environment.

“I just realized it was harder to make friends than I anticipated,” Gipson said. “Going from a public school to a private school was hard because it’s smaller. I only knew a few people going in, and it was even harder because I had to sit out for basketball.”

Wanting to perform, she looked forward to the club basketball season the summer after her sophomore year.

“I was hitting my groove,” Gipson said. “It felt like junior year was going to be my year.”

Gipson went on a recruiting trip to Portland, Oregon with her club team, Sol, for a tournament. College basketball coaches came to scout, and it was the perfect setting for Gipson to showcase her skills. But early on in their second game of the tournament, her playing time was cut short. Gipson drove the ball to the basket from the top of the key, but before she could score, a defender ran at her, clipping her leg, and Gipson’s knee popped inwards as she landed on the floor. The team had a few more stops on their road trip, but Gipson could only watch her team from the sideline. When they returned home, MRI results confirmed what she feared: she had torn her ACL.

Gipson underwent surgery to repair her ACL on Aug. 3, 2018, and immediately went to work by going to physical therapy. For 10 months, she trained with her physical therapists, working her way back onto her feet.

“I didn’t realize how much I loved basketball until I just couldn’t play it all,” Gipson said.

She was sidelined for her entire junior season, but by the time the summer club season came, Gipson was back on the court, playing with her Sol teammates. Soon, she was being sought out by colleges. Her skill attracted the attention of a number of schools, but she said she felt the most attracted to California Lutheran University.

“You know how people say, ‘You’ll know when it’s the right one and you get that feeling it is,’” Gipson said. “When I went [to California Lutheran], it just felt so good.”

Her visit with the coaches and the team helped solidify her decision to go, as she was able to stay overnight with the team.

“I was really nervous at first,” Gipson said. “But I was like, wow, these facilities are really nice. The coach was really outgoing. After all the girls introduced themselves to me, I felt a little overwhelmed, but I quickly found out they were really fun. I loved how close they were.”

In addition, she made the decision to return to Westview for her senior year.

“I was just so anxious and unhappy [at Cathedral],” Gipson said. “Coming back, it’s something familiar. My best friend is here, and Bob [McHeffey] was super welcoming and excited.”

For Gipson, her senior season was a chance to play at her fullest potential and perform the best she could, because for much of her high school career, she watched her teammates from the sideline. If she was going to make the most of any season, it was going to be this one. Gipson was averaging 14.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.7 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game midseason, a large improvement from her freshman and sophomore year stats.

“This year she was a threat because she was difficult to guard on the offensive end,” McHeffey said. “Generally, big players were too slow to cover her when she drove to the basket, and smaller players were not strong enough to keep her from places on the court where she could score.”

Naomi Gipson shoots a three-pointer in a game against Mt. Carmel. This season, Gipson made 25 percent of her shots beyond the arc.

Team manager Ailani Toledo (12) said that Gipson was instrumental to the team’s success, and was a role model to the younger players.

“She’s quick, has great court vision, dribbles well and handles pressure, strong free throw shooter, not afraid to drive and take things down low, and also has great range when shooting,” Toledo said. “You can’t help but admire the skill she displays when she is playing.”

As the team was rounding out their 26-4 season, and their sights set on winning the CIF title, the unthinkable happened. In the first quarter against Serra High School, Feb. 8, Gipson decelerated with the ball, when her knee shifted awkwardly, and she fell to the ground. Toledo remembers seeing Gipson clutching her knee on the ground, unable to get up on her own.

“Seeing someone that I care about hurt like that hurt me so much,” Toledo said.  “I couldn’t focus the rest of the game but I continued to do my job as manager. This event broke everyone’s heart on the team that night.”

According to McHeffey, the athletic trainer didn’t give confirmation at the time that it was, in fact, an ACL injury.

“I wanted to make sure she was keeping her spirits positive,” McHeffey said. “And she was handling it well. Probably better than I would.  But then later, after seeing the doctor, the concern became her future and how she would get back to playing basketball. I knew she wanted to.”

Gipson said that despite all the hardships and obstacles, this year has been the best year for her by far. Not only was she able to transition smoothly back onto the court, she was named Palomar League’s Player of the Year by the coaches.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Gipson said. “Just knowing how hard my experience was like before, and all the challenges that I had to overcome. The coaches in the league were so supportive of my season and helped me as a player. And it just felt good to know that all the hard work that I put in paid off.”

Despite the challenging road to recovery ahead of her, Gipson’s goal hasn’t changed.

“Since I’ve had these injuries, I’ve missed out on so much,” Gipson said. “It solidified my desire to play in college. This is something that I love to do.”