January 28, 2015, may have been just a typical Monday but it’s a night, and a game, that is still remembered vividly by many four-and-a-half years later.
When Jeremy Zalacca, Lenoir-Rhyne’s Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Communications, submitted a story to our sports department’s website last Monday, writing about Jackie Denny’s road back from three (yes, three) ACL injuries, it brought back memories of that night — and one other night.
Of Denny’s three ACL injuries, two of them occurred while she was a multi-sport standout at North Wilkes High School.
Suzanne Hirt and Christopher Noble, two of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot’s former assistant sports editors, were inside Fleming Gymnasium on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1A regional semifinals in early March of 2013.
On a rainy night (all the early spring events scheduled that evening were postponed), the Vikings looked to secure a spot in the NCHSAA 1A West championship game — no small feat considering North Wilkes was a little more than a year removed from a 74-game losing streak.
What started off a potentially exciting night quickly turned into a somber one.
Denny, then a sophomore who was four days removed from scoring her 1,000th point, played all of five seconds in the game against Cherokee as she went down after the second jump ball of the game, holding her right knee.
Noble said it best in his sidebar, which ran in the March 6, 2013, edition of the Journal-Patriot, the once boisterous crowd fell silent instantly.
“It’s a coach’s worst nightmare,” said Former North Wilkes Head Girls Basketball Coach Wendy Shumate right after that game in Noble’s story. “Not even one possession and down she went.”
Without their leading scorer, the Vikings were defeated by Chorokee and left to wonder what might have been. North Wilkes would not go that deep into the playoffs again until four years later (doing so in back-to-back years — the latter making it all the way to the 2A state title game).
The road to recovery was a tough one and it culminated with her returning to the volleyball court just six months later.
Denny went on to have a great junior season, helping the Viking volleyball and girls basketball program reach the second and third rounds, respectively, of the NCHSAA 2A state playoffs.
But maybe her top athletic accomplishment of the 2013-14 school year occurred on the track — a sport she was unable to compete in her sophomore year after surgery — when she captured second in the state in the 200-meter dash at the NCHSAA 2A track and field championships.
Her senior campaign started off with a bang as she helped the Viking volleyball program reach the third round of the 2A playoffs for the first time in school history.
Even though the road to a state title ended with a loss to eventual state champion Hendersonville (I remember getting a great shot of Denny at the net in the game, and the sports editor of the Hendersonville Times-News liking it so much that he used it in the centerpiece preview for the Bearcats’ state championship preview a week or so later), Denny had much more to look forward to.
First, it started in November 2014, when she signed a national letter of intent to play both volleyball and basketball for the Bears — something very rare in college sports.
Denny and the Vikings couldn’t have asked for a better start to the basketball season. Entering that Monday night game with the Eagles, they had won 22-straight Mountain Valley Athletic Conference games (7-0 in conference play that winter) and were 14-2 overall.
The game remained tight and could have gone either way but the moment that may have changed the fortunes of both teams came with just over seven minutes to play in the game.
Standing on the baseline behind North Wilkes’ basket, Denny went up for a defensive rebound, like she had done so many times in her four years on the Vikings’ varsity squad.
But there was a scrum for the ball in midair and Denny would land awkwardly on her left knee. When she didn’t immediately get up, I had this feeling in my stomach that something wasn’t right.
She stayed on the floor for several minutes, in obvious pain, and had to be helped off the floor.
That moment turned out to be the very last time that Denny would play a game in a Viking uniform. From there, the Vikings would go on to have a great season (finished 19-6 and 11-3 in the MVAC), but again, I can’t help but look back and wonder what could have been. Interestingly enough, it was Wilkes Central that went on to win the NCHSAA 2A state title that season.
That Vikings squad boasted four players who would ultimately sign to play basketball at the next level and win the next three MVAC regular season championships (what would turn out to be five titles in six seasons).
Now going on 12 years of covering high school sports, I’ve witnessed so many players who possessed that same talent only to have injuries derail them. But Denny has not let that happen.
Even with her most recent ACL injury — one that did not happen on the playing field — Denny has not wavered from her goal of continuing to play the sports she loves.
Fast forward to Friday morning, I received an email from her mom, Janet Denny, and she mentioned to me that she would have at least two more years of basketball eligibility after her second NCAA redshirt. Over the years, she had kept me posted on her daughter’s collegiate athletic career.
Even more so, she is one class away from obtaining her bachelor’s degree in marketing. And with those extra years of eligibility, Jackie Denny plans to use that time very wisely by working toward her master’s degree in business.
With probably more physical obstacles than any athlete should have to go through and so many reasons to give up, she has remained focused on her goals, both on the court and in the classroom.
And her determination is a big reason why she will continue to be successful in those endeavors.