Injury won't diminish Connie's placement among Bulldog basketball greats

Injury won’t diminish Connie’s placement among Bulldog basketball greats

By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director

Two-time All-American guard Kristen Conahan entered her senior season poised to become the all-time leading scorer in the storied history of the Concordia women’s basketball program. Everything changed on Jan. 8 with “Connie” a mere 150 points away from the school record. On that night she writhed in pain, fearing her collegiate career may be over.

“Just to think that I was done with basketball – that was really tough,” Conahan said.

Other than breaking the scoring record, there wasn’t much left for the Omaha Millard North High School product to attain. She’s as accomplished as they come among women’s college basketball stars.

She’s been named a first team All-American, honorary captain of the Omaha World-Herald NAIA All-Nebraska team and twice a first team all-conference selection. But none of that mattered during that moment that saw her lying on the court with an apparent ACL injury. She would have traded all those accolades just to have two healthy knees.

She could have given in, thrown in the towel and still gone down as one of the greatest players to ever wear the Bulldog jersey. It just wasn’t in her nature.

“Once she knew she could possibly play again then it was right back to work,” eighth-year head coach Drew Olson said. “She was in the training room 3-4 times a day doing whatever she needed to do to get back on the court.”

Conahan did in fact tear her ACL, but there was no additional damage. She would have to wait for a bone bruise to heal, but she could eventually come back if she was willing to gut it out. She spent the next few weeks wearing out the elliptical and the treadmill before returning to the court on Feb. 5.

She would go down again on Feb. 12 while trying to plant on that same knee. It was another setback that has put her back on the sideline, but not necessarily for good. It’s not safe to close the book on Conahan’s career just yet.

“I love basketball and I want to finish my career playing basketball, not sitting and watching my team,” Conahan said. “It’s really hard going to practice every day and just watching them. You can voice your opinion but you can’t physically help your teammates. I just really want to be out there.”

As a senior with 1,656 points and a program best 323 3-point field goals over 121 career games, Conahan has been there and done that. She’s won a GPAC championship, made it to the semifinals of the national tournament, where she’s appeared twice, and fueled two Concordia Invitational Tournament titles. She’s a winner whose presence alone demands respect.

“Connie just has a presence on the court that is hard to describe,” said backcourt teammate Bailey Morris. “Even if her minutes are limited, she scares teams. She can still shoot lights out and teams have to respect that. She might be in a knee brace but she's too much of a competitor to let that slow her down.”

Thus the importance of getting Conahan back on the court. The whole team exudes a greater confidence with No. 22 hoisting long range bombs. After all, the Bulldogs own a 50-9 GPAC mark in arguably the best NAIA Division II conference in the nation over the last three years.

When she plays well, Concordia is nearly unbeatable.

“She just gives us a calming presence,” Olson said. “She’s really good with her decision making with the ball. She stretches the defense out. They know she’s a great shooter and they have to honor her. She has that competitive greatness that all of her teammates feed off of. ‘Connie’s here, we’re going to be OK.’ She’s got that ‘it’ factor.”

The progression of Conahan has been remarkable. Overshadowed in high school by a teammate who went on to play at NCAA Division I University of Colorado, Conahan considered walking on at hometown University of Nebraska-Omaha and she also pondered an offer from Hastings College before choosing Concordia.

While at Millard North she was a streaky shooter still developing other aspects of her game. Olson saw plenty of potential in the prolific scoring guard he believed had all but moved on from Concordia at one point in the recruiting process.

It turned out that Concordia’s proximity to home and to her brother Matt, a University of Nebraska student at the time, was just right.

Once on campus, it didn’t take long for her to make an impact as a Bulldog. She averaged double figures in scoring and pilfered more than two steals per game as a freshman. She would soon prove that she was only getting started as she blossomed her sophomore year and led Concordia to a 34-3 record.

“She’s definitely exceeded expectations,” Olson said. “I thought she was going to be a really good shooter but I didn’t know that she would be such a tough defender, make really good decisions with the ball. I thought she was going to be really good, but I didn’t know she would be this good. She’s in the argument as one of the best players in our program history.”

Relegated to the bench by the same ACL injury, she sat and watched Concordia’s 89-78 victory over No. 3 Northwestern. Conahan later received a loud ovation from the Walz Arena crowd as part of Senior Day festivities on Feb. 15.

In a perfect world, Conahan would have been part of the victory and would have already been celebrated for becoming the top scorer in Bulldog women’s basketball history. You won’t get her to express any self pity, but her head coach gave a different take.

“I’m disappointed. I think she deserves it,” Olson said. “I think what she’s done in her four years definitely deserves some big recognition like that and I think she was definitely on her way to breaking the record. I’m disappointed even if she doesn’t say she is.”

Connie, a fierce competitor, hasn’t been able to hide the fact that she really doesn’t like sitting out. But even in the face of a major injury that put the second half of her senior year in jeopardy, she feels there is plenty of reason to be thankful.

“As soon as I heard it was just my ACL, that was a good thing compared to what it could have been,” Conahan said. “I was just happy and blessed that I got an opportunity to work to come back and play.”

20 February 2014