Rebounding was just part of the all-around game Ashley Santos brought to Geneva the last three years.
Rick West | Staff Photographer
The saying goes that it's easy to find friends when life is going well, but when tough times hit that's when you learn who your true confidants are.
Perhaps nobody has learned that better this year than Geneva's Ashley Santos, the captain of the 2011-12 Tri-Cities All-Area Girls Basketball team.
With a scholarship already lined up for Marquette and having already played on two Geneva supersectional teams, Santos entered her senior year of high school looking to write the final chapter of a wildly successful prep career.
But the storybook ending doesn't always materialize. Before the year began Santos learned she would not have the chance to play with her sister Sidney, sidelined for the second straight season with a knee injury.
And 19 games into the year with her team clicking on all cylinders, Santos saw her high school career come to an end in sudden fashion when - like her sister - she also went down with a torn ACL on a fluke play.
It has been since that moment, Jan. 14 at the McDonald's Shootout, that Santos said she has been boosted by family, teammates, classmates and coaches to put that disappointment behind her and look to what lies ahead.
"I have such a big support group and if it wasn't for all these people, I don't know," Santos said. "From my Marquette coaches, teammates there, of course my family and my sister, especially my sister. My teammates here have been awesome, they come and see me all the time, they have brought me dinner and stuff. Even my school too everyone always asks me how I'm doing. Pretty much everyone."
Santos said teammate Sami Pawlak and Taylor Keating, a good friend from track, have visited "literally every day at my house," to keep Santos company while she does her daily rehab routines or ices her knee. A movie buff, the rehab also has given Santos more time than she would like to see her favorite flicks, "I watched four yesterday," laughed Santos.
She said while the rehab is going well it is too early to know if she'll be back for her freshman year at Marquette or redshirt next season.
"The injury disappointed me because I wasn't able to end my senior season in the way I pictured it," Santos said. "It's (the rehab) been going especially well. I already have full extension. They are really working on my rotation and stuff right now. I should be right on target with coming back to play in August hopefully. The swelling has gone down a lot. I'm making significant progress which is good and makes me feel good.
"When I go up there and start working out they will judge based on how I'm moving whether I'm ready to compete. It's all up to my coaches. Anything is possible right now. There's always a possibility that I may have to redshirt."
Marquette coach Terri Mitchell can't wait to have Santos join her backcourt to complement a strong - and young - frontcourt nucleus.
"The biggest thing is to let her know the day of her surgery is when the healing begins," Mitchell said. "Every single day after that surgery she is closer to playing for us. We keep reminding her she has a very special career at Marquette and this is just a bump in the road that is going to make her mentally and emotionally tougher. Our plans for her have not changed. We know she is going to be an impact (player). Obviously nobody wants to get hurt but there's plenty of time between now and when she plays for us and we're just here to support her and let her know that it is going to be all right."
Santos was enjoying a big senior year when she went down, leading Geneva in scoring at 14.3 points a game plus 5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.4 steals a game. Upstate Eight coaches named her the River Division MVP.
"She put up great numbers before she got hurt and people could not really stop her," Geneva coach Sarah Meadows said. "She is able to take over a game in a second."
Among the highlights for Santos was winning the MVP of Geneva's Thanksgiving tournament when the Vikings defeated Morgan Park and eventual Class 3A state champion Montini on the way to the title.
Santos also nailed a buzzer-beater on a full-court pass from Kelly Gordon at the Springfield Classic. How many more moments like those there might have been can only fall into the "what-if" category - right along with how far the Vikings might have gone in the past two postseasons with both Ashley and Sidney healthy.
That's a topic Ashley said she doesn't dwell on.
"I take it as a steppingstone type of thing," said Santos who might major in physical therapy at Marquette, a profession she certainly will have a better perspective on after her injury.
"It's one thing I have to learn and get over. If you get knocked down you have to get back up. I have never been injured before. Being restricted like this, not being able to do anything is different for me. I think going through this injury now and learning how to deal with it, I think I'll really grow from it."
As it was, Geneva finished 24-6 this year and won a fourth straight regional title. In Santos's three seasons in the Geneva lineup the Vikings went 72-11.
"I feel really bad for her," Geneva senior Rachel Hinchman said at the time of the injury. "I know she will get through it. She's a strong player. She'll come back strong."
After the injury Santos switched gears to support her team from the bench. Normally she would wear sweats or street clothes to games, but there also were times she would show up with her No. 33 Geneva jersey on.
"Sometimes I'd miss wearing my jersey and miss throwing it on," Santos said. "I knew since I couldn't be an on-the-court leader I knew I had to switch roles and find my place on the team doing something else. Being on the bench every game and watching gave me a new perspective on the game. I was able to see some things normally people who are playing don't see because they are so caught up in what they are doing. I'm able to give compliments and random advice. Just coming to the games and being a part of it that was good for me too. Being able to keep my mind off it."
Santos said she has a tape of the Lincoln-Way East game when she was injured retreating on defense to stop a fastbreak. There was no contact on the play.
"I wanted to watch it," Santos said. "It was so weird when that moment came and I saw myself fall. Sprinting back on defense, I didn't trip, I didn't move funny, my knee just collapsed on me. It was just a freak thing. Whenever I tell my doctors that they are just amazed. I felt a pop and it just gave out on me."
Immediately after the game Santos was hoping to escape with a sprain. She found out the next day she wasn't so fortunate.
"When the doctor told me that it was an ACL tear it was rough to take in at the moment," Santos said. "I kind of took it how it was and from then on I knew I had to work hard and push to come back and do everything the doctors tell me to get back."
Santos played her first year at Bartlett and scored 372 points. She transferred to Geneva and as a sophomore averaged 10.1 points a game on a Vikings team that went 31-1 and didn't lose until the supersectionals against Hersey.
Santos upped her numbers to 15.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.2 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 77 percent at the line as a junior. She also passed the 1,000-career point mark in a win over St. Charles North.
You can bet this won't be the last you see of Santos at Geneva games. She'll be back when she can to support her friends and her sister.
As for Sidney, still yet to play a game at Geneva, Ashley offered a glowing scouting report for Vikings fans.
"She is ruthless," Santos said. "She'll grab rebounds and is really good at a quick outlet. She loves running and gunning as much as I do. She will carry on Geneva the way they like to run and gun. She has worked on her midrange shooting too. And the way she drives to the basket is with a lot of force. She's all about power. She's very strong for a girl her age. I think people will be impressed when she comes back that for a forward she is really good at passing. Her basketball IQ is up there."
The summer after her junior year Santos committed to play in the Big East for Marquette, choosing the Golden Eagles over Indiana, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Pittsburgh and Penn State.
Mitchell said it was more than just talent that made Santos a good fit with Marquette.
"The first thing that jumps out about Ashley is her work ethic and her passion," Mitchell said. "This is a person who loves the game of basketball. Skill-wise her ability to be that combo guard, her handle, her passing ability and we are definitely looking for scorers to step in. We feel really good about our inside game and just need that perimeter threat.
"The biggest thing I can say about her, you don't see this a lot in high school players, she never takes a play off. She plays hard on both ends of the court no matter what the score is. She has one mentality and that is to compete."
When Santos reflects on her four years of high school basketball, there's no shortage of memorable moments.
"I'll think back starting out the years at Bartlett and playing point guard there and think of each year that has gone by, all the things I've added to my game and how I grew us a player," Santos said. "I'm really grateful playing with a team and players like Kat Yelle and Lauren Wicinski and people like that and going to two supersectionals because that's not something a lot of people can say. When I think back on this season and all the great girls I played with I'll really miss my team from this year. I got so close with them."
As Santos learned all too well, those friendships grow strong through both the highs and lows.
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