BASKETBALL: Painful Returns

Amber North

They spent last season on the sidelines with their hands firmly gripping their crutches and watching their teams play without them.

While Lady Topper point guard Camryn Whitaker and Hilltopper forward Todor Pandov were sweating out their pain in rehab, their teams were on their way to winning Sun Belt Conference Championships.

As this season started, the two basketball standouts shared hope and matching scars.

It hasn’t been easy and neither has had much to celebrate in their attempts to overcome painful adversity.

Returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament is becoming increasingly common in the world of sports.

But for these two Topper stars, it has been anything but a glorious return to the hardwood.

Now that they are back in the lineup, it hasn’t been easy for Whitaker and Pandov to return to natural form.

Pandov’s return was highly anticipated, and college hoops guru Dick Vitale listed him as one of the top five in the nation to look out for this preseason.

But the senior Bulgarian struggled with another injury to his left knee in practice on Dec. 10 benching him for five games, making it harder for him to be the versatile forward fans have become accustomed to.

“This season is not going as I envisioned,” Pandov said. “A lot of different things have happened since I re-injured my knee.”

In the 107-52 Kentucky State win on Jan. 3, Pandov only played 12 minutes, though his stat sheet was the most impressive all season with season-highs of 15 points and eight rebounds.

“Todor has a tremendous work ethic,” head coach Darrin Horn said. “He’s done a good job to get back into the situation. It’s going to take some time to develop the confidence he needs.”

Whitaker also came back with high expectations, after being a playmaking stud for the Lady Toppers when she started in all but four games in her first two seasons at Western.

While she has started in all 14 games this season, she said she still hasn’t found her niche.

“I don’t think my performance has been good this season,” Whitaker said. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with my knee. I’ve been out for 18 months without playing basketball and I’m still not into it like I used to.”

Lady Topper coach Mary Taylor Cowles is impressed with Whitaker’s recovery, however.

“None of us on the team has been through what she’s been through,” she said. “Camryn is a fighter and has been working extremely hard and I have confidence in her ability.”

Being 100 percent healthy isn’t the real issue for Whitaker and Pandov. The main problem with having an injury is the mental effect it has had on the players.

Pandov has been forced to battle both his body and his mind.

“It was frustrating for me not being able to play out there,” Pandov said. “Things haven’t been going my way, but the most successful people succeed when things aren’t going their way and when there’s controversy.”

Whitaker battled with the same mental strain.

“I had to sit out so long and that had an effect on me,” she said. “I shouldn’t be so hard on myself and compare myself on how I used to play.”

Lady Topper assistant coach Kyra Elzy knows exactly what Whitaker and Pandov are going through.

Elzy spent five years at Tennessee as Pat Summit’s reliable defensive specialist and won national championships in each of her first two seasons.

Then she tore her ACL and wasn’t the same.

“People don’t understand how difficult it is to come back from an injury,” Elzy said. “I think everyone who comes back from an ACL injury have a mental lapse that comes in the knee and your ability. People have a misconception that once you come back you will be back to like you were before.”

Whitaker hasn’t been making much noise as a scorer, but the team is complete with her controlling the offense.

“I feel my teammates look up to me as a leader on and off the court,” she said. “I’ve accepted that role, being a good leader, and I’ve come a long way leadership-wise.”

Pushing all negativity aside, both Whitaker and Pandov are only focusing on bringing their teams back to conference-title fashion.

Tonight, the Lady Toppers travel to Arkansas-Little Rock for their conference opener, while the Hilltoppers take on Arkansas-Little Rock in Diddle Arena.

It is uncertain how much Pandov will be play, but his presence is much needed.

“He’s a big part of this team and if he gets healthy and plays to his ability he will be hard to stop,” senior guard Mike Wells said.

Reach Amber North at [email protected]