Girls team adapts after leading scorer tears ACL

Mackenzie “Mac” Oribello (12) did not expect to tear her ACL in late May, handicapping her for seven months from the sport she has played for 11 years.

She did not expect to miss a month of her senior-year season or to sit on the bench for eight games. Coming into her fourth year on varsity, she expected to play alongside her close friends and teammates, post Lilly Crabtree (12) and guard Julia “Jules” Dahlke (12).

“Basketball is like a second part of me,” Oribello said.

Oribello and Crabtree have played on the same team since third grade. In seventh grade, Dahlke moved into the neighborhood, and together the three settled on the same competitive team, continuing until their freshman year.

“We played for the Lady Ballers,” Crabtree said through a laugh upon recalling the league name.

The three have played together on varsity for three years, watching each other grow from anxious and hesitant freshmen to sophomore starters—and finally to senior leaders.

Accustomed to each other’s playing styles from the years of playing together, the three work as a unit and driving force on the court. It’s an innate harmony between players that even coaches at the professional level have difficulty establishing in their teams.

“We just have that natural chemistry with each other,” Dahlke said. “We don’t need to think about what the other person is going to do. We just know what they’re going to do.”

But plans for the varsity team changed after one game last summer. The trio played on the same team for a different competitive league called Sol.

Two minutes into their summer league championship, Oribello went for a steal. The opposing post shoved Oribello’s right shoulder, and with Oribello putting most of her weight on her left leg, she heard three pops as her body shifted.

The athletic trainer on standby told Oribello to expect the worst: a torn ACL in the left leg. Although doctors speculated that Oribello had torn her meniscus or medial collateral ligament (MCL)—both, in their worst cases, require three months less in recovery time than a torn ACL—Oribello ultimately scheduled ACL reconstruction surgery two weeks after that championship game.

For the girls, playing on Sol for a couple months was supposed to be the springboard into an exciting winter season.

“It was kind of upsetting,” Crabtree said. “I’d always had Mac on the court with me for every single game I’ve played.”

With most players participating in other competitive leagues during the summer, the varsity team did not get to play as one unit as often during the off-season. While players got a taste of what the upcoming season might be like in a single summer tournament, major adjustments weren’t set into motion until the start of the season in November.

Along with Oribello, the Wolverines lost backup point guard Sarina Shah (10) to an ACL tear and post Naomi Gipson (10), who transferred schools at the end of last season. Although they were new to the varsity level, Shah and Gipson had strong freshman seasons.

Aside from veteran guards Oribello and Dahlke, who put 332 and 308 points on the board, respectively, last season, Gipson finished the season with the third most points amongst her teammates, 183. Behind her upperclassmen counterparts, Shah scored 109 points over the course of 29 games.

To lose a returning player and two rising players was initially worrisome for Crabtree and Dahlke.

“Coming into this year, we expected to have all five starters back,” Dahlke said. “Even though we’ve had obstacles, our team has come together. A bunch of people have stepped up in their roles and filled in the empty ones.”

Crabtree, in particular, has worked on using her rebounds as a platform to rack up points. Last season, Crabtree grabbed 10.1 rebounds per game, but was able to put up only 4.5 points per game.

With Oribello being the team’s leading scorer last season, Crabtree improved her offensive game to make up for this season’s loss, benefitting the team in the numbers and in turn instilling a greater confidence in her shooting ability.

“Mac made a big chunk of our points,” Dahlke said. “Now, we are depending on Lilly to be the other scorer.”

So far this season, Crabtree averages 9.7 rebounds per game with 8.7 points per game. She also leads the team with 27 assists and 25 steals. According to Oribello, this improvement is in large part due to Crabtree’s first summer season with Sol.

“You definitely see better competition when you play for Sol,” Oribello said. “There are a lot of good teams when we play for Westview, but there’s a lot of different talent we see when we travel and play teams from Kentucky and Oregon—bigger posts that Lilly got to see and faster guards that Jules had to go against.”

While the team adjusted, Dahlke’s role has slightly changed as well. With no main player to run the offense, Dahlke handles the ball much more than in previous seasons.

“I’ve always had Mac to run down the court with,” Dahlke said. “But it’s a nice adjustment to get to play a little more of both.”

This has given Dahlke more opportunities to shoot from the perimeter. With the team’s good looks to the arc, Dahlke leads the team with 15 points per game, and has put up double figures in six of the past eight games.

To kick off the game against Scripps Ranch High School, Dec. 15, Dahlke put up two threes in the first two minutes of the game, contributing to the team’s 15 points in the first quarter.

Although recent injuries unexpectedly happened, they were still manageable for coach Bob McHeffey. While Crabtree and Dahlke have strengthened the team’s dynamic from the two and five positions, McHeffey has had to figure out how to run the one position with different players.

“We’re a little bit different from what I was anticipating at the end of the year,” McHeffey said. “You just have to flexible.Roles have changed a bit, specifically the guards. Because of that, there are more guards who are getting some playing time and having to do different things that they maybe wouldn’t have been asked to do this year.”

Although new to varsity, Brianna Jacobs (9), Sarina Dacio (10), and Ariana Williams (10) started working from the one right from the beginning of the season and have received a considerable amount of playing time.

Williams and her energy have contributed to a factor in the game that the team predicted it would lack following Oribello’s injury: steals.

Last season, Oribello broke a team record by one with 98 steals on the season. However, the team hasn’t been significantly short in steals this season, especially with players like Crabtree and Williams starting.

“Ariana is vocal and she takes the role of getting steals,” Oribello said. “We are not losing too much in that defensive aspect.”

In the team’s first game of the season against Mount Miguel High School, one of the two teams McHeffey expects to be Westview’s top competitors in the county, Williams made two steals of the six made by the team. When they played Temescal Canyon High School, Williams stole the ball from the Titans eight times, nearly half of the Wolverine’s 19 steals.

Oribello said she is not too concerned about Williams since she seems to have adapted well to the pressures of the faster-paced game. In turn, Oribello focuses on mentoring Jacobs, primarily because Jacobs reminds Oribello of herself as a freshman.

“I also was really nervous as a freshman,” Oribello recollected. “I tell [Jacobs] that she’s out there for a reason. Coach saw something in her. She needs to slow it down, breathe and believe in herself.”

Regardless of who is running the offense, McHeffey is still working towards conditioning the team to get extra points from press breaks.

It worked with Oribello last season, and McHeffey said he will make it work for this year’s team as well.

“We focus more on our press breaks because that’s where [Dacio, Jacobs, and Williams] will struggle more,” McHeffey said. “They can run an offense and they can shoot. But Mac is a good press breaker basically by herself. We focus more on that earlier in the season so that they will become more comfortable with that.”

As of now, Oribello is the team’s athletic assistant, which for her, is a title she found ironic since she is accustomed to dribbling in the paint, not sitting on the bench.

However, just last week, Dec. 13, Oribello heard the news that she waited more than half a year for.

On that day, she passed the physical test confirming that she is in good condition to get back on the court. According to CIF regulations, Oribello needs to participate in five practices before she can play in a game. She is aiming to return in the first game of the So Cal Holiday Prep Classic Tournament against Olympian High School Wednesday.

While things for Oribello are starting to turn around, her involuntary seven-month hiatus has helped her find some clarity in how to cope with the challenges that come with major injuries.

The period in which she wanted to play but physically couldn’t was difficult to accept.

“The first couple weeks following the surgery were awful,” Oribello said. “I was lying in bed and I wasn’t exercising. But I did learn a lot from my injury. I learned about patience, perseverance, hard work and motivation.”

She also became interested in the work physical therapists do. After experiencing the ups and downs that come with extensive recovery, Oribello realized that she wants to help athletes who are experiencing similar challenges.

“When I finally started physical therapy, I started working out more,” Oribello said. “I even got a gym membership. I learned a lot about the knee while I was recovering too. Now, I kind of know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to help people who go through the same injury that I went through.”

According to Oribello, with a 5-3 record, winning the Palomar League is still in reach, especially since Crabtree said the team has been playing more cohesively.

“We are closer than we’ve ever been,” Crabtree said.

For Oribello, there’s still an irritating itch to get back on the court. Ultimately, another season with her best friends is all she wants.

“I definitely want to win League,” Oribello said. “If we happen to go from Open Division to DI, I definitely want to win DI. I definitely just want to play with Jules and Lilly though.”