Kayla Hirt’s first season with the Gophers and her last season of high school were eerily similar.
They didn’t happen.
Hirt tore an anterior cruciate ligament — a major ligament that stabilizes the knee — before both seasons. She hasn’t played in an organized basketball game in more than two years. Now, she’s finally healthy.
Barring a major setback, the guard-forward will debut for the Gophers in their regular season opener Nov. 10, giving head coach Pam Borton another scorer her team sorely needs.
Hirt was one of ESPN.com’s top-100 national high school recruits in the class of 2011, and she looked as good as advertised in the practices leading up to the 2011-12 campaign, according to Borton.
Borton said Hirt would have been a starter if she had stayed healthy. But Hirt tore her right ACL while playing defense in practice last October.
“I knew the second it happened,” Hirt said. “It was devastating.”
It was especially devastating because a torn left ACL sidelined her during her senior year of high school.
“You have those times when you think, ‘This is a long time. Another year,’” Hirt said. “It gets emotional.”
While Hirt’s teammate and best friend Rachel Banham was tearing up the Big Ten, Hirt was rehabbing her knee in an effort to salvage her career.
“I know it was tough,” said Banham, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year. “It was a struggle for her to watch us play. I knew she wanted to play so bad.”
Team trainer Kate Taber knew, too. Taber said she was initially impressed that Hirt wanted to rehab the injury, considering it happened in high school.
“She was in my office every day, multiple times a day,” Taber said. “When [the team] was up on the court, she was doing rehab. She was staying extra. It proved she wanted to get back fast.”
Hirt spent the entire 2011-12 season and the subsequent off-season rehabilitating her knee back to 100 percent. It was a long, steady process.
First, Hirt had to regain range of motion in the knee. Once it returned, she started doing exercises that involved jumping and cutting — common movements in basketball. Now it’s just about getting into basketball shape, which she said she isn’t worried about.
“When it comes to my knees, I’m not nervous or anything,” she said. “By the time it comes to games and everything, I know I’ll be right where I’m supposed to be.”
Hirt said she’ll play both on the perimeter and down low.
At 6 feet, 2 inches, she’s the second-tallest player on the team, and she’ll see time in the post. But she said she feels at her best when she’s on the wing.
“People that guard me are going to be a little bit shorter,” Hirt said. “Because I’m a jump-shooter, I can easily shoot right over them.”
Hirt said she’s comfortable shooting out to about 18 feet and said she will consistently make eight of 10 open looks.
Borton referred to Hirt as a “prolific scorer” and said the team missed her scoring prowess a year ago.
Banham’s 16.1 points per game led the team in 2011-12. But the Gophers graduated their second-leading scorer, Kiara Buford, who averaged 13.6 points. Hirt will be expected to help fill that void.
Borton said Hirt’s minutes won’t be restricted, and she’s ready to play right now.
“It’s going to be nice to have someone to score in that position every night,” Borton said.
“We’re going to be expecting some big things from her this year.”