Torn knees, broken hearts: ACL injuries ended seasons for three of area's best girls basketball players
Girls basketball players Aby Shubert of Kasson-Mantorville and Mayo teammates Taylor Hill and Kaia Kirkeby all had their seasons end this year due to ACL injuries.
As soon as Kevin Kirkeby heard that piercing and panicked sound coming from his daughter, Kaia, he knew what had happened.
The Rochester Mayo assistant girls basketball coach had heard it before. Some 30 years ago, it came from a football teammate of his. Now it was coming just a few feet away from him, from Kaia, a standout sophomore point guard on a standout Mayo team.
Kaia had torn her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, and Kevin knew it.
“She let out a cry, a noise I’d never heard her make before,” Kevin said. “I had a friend in college who made the same noise. I knew right then her ACL was gone. I just put my head down. I was emotional.”
There have been three girls in southeastern Minnesota, all of them standout basketball players, who along with their families have been crushed by season-ending ACL injuries the past three months. Two are teammates, Kirkeby and senior Taylor Hill. The other is Kasson-Mantorville senior Aby Shubert, who began the season as a Minnesota Ms. Basketball candidate.
Shubert and Hill saw their seasons end almost before they’d begun, it happening to both of them in their team’s second game.
On Dec. 2, in a home contest with Goodhue, Shubert was dashing in for a wide-open layup. As the senior guard planted her right foot before extending for the shot, Shubert felt something move in her right knee. It was her ACL. It had almost completely torn.
Shubert’s season was done.
“I knew something had happened,” said Shubert, a five-year starter, a 1,693-point scorer and one of K-M’s most decorated players ever. “I wasn’t in that much pain, but I knew something was really wrong. That’s why I became so emotional. It’s something that I never thought would happen to me. But when it did, I knew right away what it was. I didn’t need someone to tell me.”
One day later, while playing against Lakeville South at Hopkins, Mayo’s Hill lived the same nightmare. The senior guard was shuffling as she played defense, all while trying to move forward just a bit. A momentary planting of her feet left her in an awkward stance.
That’s all it took. The second-year starter and standout crumpled to the ground and stayed there.
“Andy (Mayo coach Andy Bromeling) said he heard something (a popping noise from her right knee),” Hill said. “I block most things out when I’m playing, so I didn’t hear anything. But I knew right then what it was.”
Sure enough, Hill had torn her ACL. Like Shubert, it would be the last high school game she’d ever play.
Close to two months later, on Jan. 21 in the Mayo gymnasium, it happened to Kirkeby. The swift and powerful guard had gotten a steal against Stillwater and was streaking the other direction for a breakaway layup. Just as she went into her plant-and-power-up position for the shot, Kirkeby leaned slightly into a defender who was inches behind her. Kirkeby’s right knee went one direction and the rest of her another.
“When I went to the ground, I knew something was wrong because I’d heard a pop,” Kirkeby said. “I tried to play it off like I was fine.”
But she knew, as did her father — Kevin immediately hanging his head in devastated sorrow — that she was anything but fine.
Her season was over. Like Shubert and Hill before her, Kirkeby had suffered one of the most dreaded injuries in sports, a torn ACL.
“I kind of blacked out then,” Kirkeby said. “I just remember our trainer (Dan Christoffer) grabbing my shoulders and telling me to stop hyperventilating.”
Time to heal
Shubert, Hill and Kirkeby have all had time now — along with their families — to catch their breath and attempt to reel in their emotions since the season-ending injuries.
Surgeries have followed, all of them at Mayo Clinic. Shubert and Hill coincidentally had their ACLs repaired the same day, Jan. 5. Kirkeby’s surgery came just last week, Feb. 16.
Now, all are faced with the same challenging future. Not only are their seasons done, but they face long, arduous climbs back to health, with months and months of intense rehabilitation that has already begun.
All continue to have serious hopes of playing basketball again, Shubert at Division I Xavier University (Cincinnati), Hill at Grand View University (Des Moines, Iowa), and Kirkeby for two more years at Mayo.
But it figures to be at least nine months before any of them are running up and down a court again.
“Me and Kaia worked really hard in the off-season,” Hill said. “It’s hard now to see someone else take my spot. Plus, we had a really good chance to make it to state this year. Now I’m not so sure. I miss playing a lot. I’m just glad that it isn’t over for me, that I get to play at Grand View next year. That helps, to know there is something to still look forward to.”
Shubert can’t help but be overcome every time she watches one of her Kasson-Mantorville team’s games. She had big plans, believing her team had a chance to make a significant jump this season. She also had individual goals she wanted and figured to achieve, such as becoming her school’s all-time leading scorer.
All of that was dashed on Dec. 2.
“It is really hard to miss out on my senior season,” Shubert said. “I miss it every time I go to a game and watch. I picture myself on the court. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
As much as these players have been crushed by their season-ending injuries, it has been just as hard on their parents.
All of the time spent with their daughters in gymnasiums and driveways through the years — the dads particularly having worked with them on their games — and then this.
It’s been rough. All three of these fathers fought tears as they were interviewed for this story.
“This injury has made me the most emotional that I’ve been in a long time,” said Shubert’s father, Kyle Shubert, who also tore his ACL as a teenager. “I’ve just seen everything that she worked for. And now, how quickly things have changed. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, watching this happen to her.”
Kevin Kirkeby, a former John Marshall football coach, had seen plenty of injuries in his time, including ACL tears. All of them bothered him. But to see it now happen to his own daughter, that’s another level.
“It was to the point where I was thinking about it almost all the time,” Kevin said. “It’s just sad to go through it. You can’t help but think, ‘Why her?’ I believe things happen for a reason. We don’t know what that is now, but we might later. It just reminds us that you have to appreciate every minute that you get to practice and every minute that you get to play.”
Dan Hill, Taylor’s father, knew first-hand how devoted his daughter was to this Mayo team and becoming the best player possible.
He’d routinely hear her driving away in the car at 5:30 in the morning, headed to the Rochester Athletic Club to get up extra shots before school would start.
Then it all got taken away.
“She worked really hard,” Dan said. “She’s a go-getter and was always trying really hard and putting in the time.”
A new mission
The mission this season has changed for Aby Shubert, Taylor Hill and Kaia Kirkeby. But they each still have one.
It’s to continue to support their team, and in so doing, they are being supported.
What they’ve each been asked to do by their coaches is to become quasi-coaches themselves, to lend advice to their teammates and even at times to their head coach. At Mayo that is Bromeling and at Kasson-Mantorville it’s Ryan Haraldson.
So they show up to every practice and game once their daily physical therapy is done, crutching their way around as they roll out balls occasionally and lend emotional and strategic advice to their teammates.
All three agree that being allowed this role has been the difference between having a completely depressing winter, to having one that still offers purpose and a sense of belonging.
“I’ve thought at times that what is the point of coming to practice if I’m not playing?” Hill said. “But this is my last year and everyone here is my friend. These are the people that I really hang around with. If I didn’t come here, I’d get very bored just sitting at home.”
Shubert has particularly taken to her new role. She sees herself as a coach down the road, and now more than ever after getting a taste of it.
“I am still trying to be a leader on the court and on the bench,” Shubert said. “But now, I’m doing it without a ball in my hands. I love this. It shows me how much I’d love to coach when I’m older. I feel like I am learning the game a lot better now by just watching it. There is only so much you can learn on the court. So it’s kind of nice to learn from a different perspective. Telling these girls what they need to do to get better, that brings me a lot of joy. And the girls receive it well.”
K-M coach Haraldson has developed a large appreciation for having Shubert at his side. Yes, he’d much rather she were on the court, where she is one of the best players in the state. But this coaching version of Shubert, it’s also special.
“With Aby, it’s just like having another coach on the bench,” Haraldson said. “In practices, she points out so many of the little things to our younger guards that need to be corrected. To have Aby help with the little details, it’s been great. She’s been amazing. It’s too bad she’s not on the floor, but she’s been a really valuable piece.”
After watching two months of Hill taking on her role as a quasi-coach, Bromeling has the same feeling about her, that coaching could be in her future. Whatever happens there, he couldn't be more impressed and indebted to her.
"Taylor just wants to help us in any way that she can," Bromeling said. "The kids really respond to her. I've put her in charge of the point guards. During games, when I take one of them out, I have them sit by Taylor and she talks to them, telling them what I'm looking for."
It is a young Mayo basketball prodigy who has taken the place of Hill and Kirkeby since their injury, seventh-grader Amelia Mills.
Things have generally gone well for her. Mills gives Hill and Kirkeby a large batch of credit for her early success.
They have taught her well.
“Taylor has always been there for me, on the bench, telling me anything that I’m doing wrong,” Mills said. “She reassures me and helps me if I need anything. And Kaia has always been there, too, helping us out. She is always cheering loud and does her best to bring energy to the team.”
It’s not a role that Shubert, Hill or Kirkeby envisioned. But they’re making the most of it.
Just as they’re making sense of it.
“I think that God has a plan and that this is just a little bump in the road,” Hill said. “This is going to make me stronger in life.”