Michaela Loebel might have had the worst seat in the house when Geneva played Batavia last month, having to sit in street clothes on the Vikings' bench while Liza Fruendt scored 51 points in the Bulldogs' second straight win over Geneva.
What a difference it makes for Geneva to have Loebel back on the court.
She got her first start since returning from a knee injury Thursday night in the Class 4A Addison Trail sectional championship game, and the senior played a large role in holding Fruendt to 10 points -- 15 below her average -- in the Vikings' 48-24 victory.
Loebel recalled the helpless feeling during Geneva's second loss to Batavia and how glad the Vikings were to get a third chance.
"I think we were just having a tough time and honestly it is nice that we won it when it mattered," Loebel said. "It was hard losing to them because it's such a rivalry and she's such a respected player. It was frustrating but it also was encouraging for postseason knowing we would probably play them again."
The saying goes that it's hard to beat a team three times in a season, and that certainly proved true for Batavia. It probably would have been to the Bulldogs' advantage to play anybody for the first time instead of an opponent that knows first hand how much Batavia's offense relies on Fruendt.
Taylor Williams subbed in for Loebel at times to help with Geneva's box-and-1.
"We were supposed to be in her face, and when she didn't have the ball watch her and nobody else because she's an outstanding player," Loebel said of guarding Fruendt. "We knew that she was the person we needed to shut down."
Loebel missed 13 straight games from Dec. 13 until returning to the court Jan. 31 on Senior Night against Streamwood.
Geneva coach Sarah Meadows was asked often during that time when -- or if -- Loebel would be back. She had her own doubts the future Nebraska soccer player would suit up again.
"To be honest, yes, I didn't think she would get back," Meadows said. "But she put in her time in the therapy and when she went back for the last one and they rechecked it, it was not far off her good knee. It was a millimeter difference. They said now you have to test it, and it's holding up. She's doing a great job."
Loebel also admitted the thought of not playing again crossed her mind -- often at times.
"Definitely," Loebel said. "Surgery was definitely an option. It's not out of an option now. I see the doctor March 5. I am just so thankful to finish out with the best team I could ever have."
In Loebel's first game back on Senior Night she could not make cuts. She has steadily been doing more on the court ever since.
Geneva likely would not have been cutting down the nets Thursday with its fourth sectional title in six years without the 12 points Loebel scored in the regional final, her huge 3-pointer and drive for a basket in the fourth quarter when No. 1 seed Wheaton Warrenville South had erased a 12-point deficit and had momentum on its side Tuesday, and then her defense on Fruendt Thursday.
"I just go through physical therapy (at ATI in Geneva Commons) and practices and workouts and we kept pushing the limits," Loebel said. "My coach and my team would encourage me to try one more thing to see how it felt and there was never a bad reaction."
Her teammates certainly recognize what Loebel's return has meant to their late-season success, which now stands at a 13-game winning streak heading into Monday's Class 4A Judson supersectional against Rockford Boylan.
"She just makes all the difference on the team," Geneva forward Janie McCloughan said. "She brings energy and passion to the game and she's so quick. We're a whole different team with her. It's awesome to have her back."
Loebel's only 2 points Thursday came on a couple late free throws, but she also had 4 steals and made sure Fruendt didn't have the driving lanes or 3-point looks she found last time.
"It's like night and day," Meadows said. "She's such a difference-maker on the court. Against this team it's even better (to have Loebel back) because we have someone who can guard her (Fruendt). Just brings energy. She plays with so much heart it's hard not to get up and play with her."
Batavia coach Kevin Jensen used many of the same words in describing Loebel's impact.
"It makes the world of difference for them," Jensen said. "It takes a little pressure off Sidney. I think it's huge for them. I thought the last couple years coaching against them she was always a spark for them. So I'm not surprised as she's eased in the last couple weeks not that they haven't just kept winning but they have accelerated. I knew getting her back would be pretty big for them."
Loebel also missed all but 4 games of her junior season, so you can only imagine how sweet this postseason run has been.
One of her longest hugs in the postgame celebration Thursday came from her future Nebraska teammate, Amanda Hilton from St. Charles East, who had her own season-ending injury.
"It means so much," Loebel said. "Sidney (Santos), Morgan (Seberger) and I have played AAU together, we've always dreamed of going as far as possible. The past three years we've always had bumps, potholes, bumps on the road on the way down. This year our team chemistry is so good on and off the court. Everyone cares for each other. I think that's what is getting us this far."
That bumpy road is now just one win away from taking Loebel and her teammates all the way to Redbird Arena at ISU -- a fitting place to see all those highs and lows end with one glorious, unforgettable, Mt. Everest-type high.