BYU’s Eaton clears the bar, returns from ACL injury

Lexi Eaton is back on the court for BYU women's basketball. (Photo by Jonathan Hardy/BYU Photo)

Lexi Eaton is back on the court for BYU women’s basketball. (Photo by Jonathan Hardy/BYU Photo)

It was a pretty impressive stat line under any circumstances – 27 points, nine rebounds, four assists.

That career-high scoring night for Brigham Young University’s 5-foot-10 sophomore guard Lexi Eaton came in Game 5 of the 2013-2014 women’s basketball season. More importantly for Eaton and the Cougars, the performance on their home court came 357 days after she saw her 2012-2013 season end on that same Marriott Center hardwood in the eighth game of the season.

Eaton has had ups and downs during the first 14 games of this season, but the 9-for-20 shooting night against Washington State on Nov. 26, along with her career-high nine rebounds, was a good sign that Eaton is back on the road to success.

The Injury

They are three of the most frightening letters in sports – ACL.

The anterior cruciate ligament is one of four major ligaments that support the knee joint. Its role is to prevent the tibia from sliding forward on the femur and the femur from sliding backward on the tibia. The knee doesn’t have a whole lot of support from other structures to help prevent those motions. Interestingly, according to reports, more than two-thirds of ACL tears happen in non-contact situations.

Eight games into her sophomore season, Eaton joined the long list of elite athletes who have seen careers interrupted because of  a tear to that ligament. Depending on which report you choose to believe, there are anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 ACL repairs done each year in the United States, and women are as much as five times more likely than men to tear the ACL.

For Eaton, it happened Dec. 4, 2012, in a home game against Utah State. The sophomore had buried her only shot, a 3-pointer, during the first six minutes of the game. Then her season came to an abrupt end.

At the time, Eaton was the leading scorer for the Cougars, well on her way to a successful encore to a freshman year in which she was named the West Coast Conference newcomer of the year. The former Springville High three-sport star had never had to sit out before, let alone spend up to a year rehabbing a serious injury.

This injury is known to require anywhere from nine to 12 months recovery time, and the rehabilitation for an athlete typically requires as much as two to three hours per day, five days a week of intense physical therapy. For someone so used to being on the court, it can be a devastating blow.


A New Opportunity

As she has with most every challenge to date in her life, Eaton chose to treat this setback as an opportunity.

Sophomore guard Lexi Eaton missed last season after a knee injury. Photo by Mark Philbrick (BYU Photo)

Sophomore guard Lexi Eaton missed last season after a knee injury. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Eaton said. “I’ve never had to sit out before in my life, but I took it as an opportunity instead of a downfall. I just made a plan of what I was going to learn from it and what I was going to try to get better at, and made the most of it.

“I think the first part of rehab was the hardest, mentally, because physically I couldn’t even straighten my leg for forever. Then, after that it was just pushing through and getting stronger.”

Eaton reached out to a number of people for guidance on the process of dealing with and recovering from the ACL tear. That began with the senior point guard on the 2012-2013 squad, Haley Steed, who spent seven years in the BYU program, battling through three different ACL injuries.

“I talked to Haley Steed, of course,” Eaton said. “I talked with my coaches and my dad, who has also torn his ACL twice. It’s amazing how many people have torn their ACLs, and how many athletes have. I looked at Derrick Rose and all the NBA guys to see how they came back. I talked to a lot of people. If someone’s already been through it, I might as well not try to relearn everything that people have already learned.”

With her extensive history of recovering from this same injury, Steed knows all too well the struggles Eaton was facing last year. Fortunately, as the new Director of Operations for the women’s basketball team, she is still around to provide guidance and support.

“It’s frustrating,” Steed said. “You still come to practice every day and you see them all playing and you want to be out there really bad, so that’s the frustrating part of it. It’s also really emotionally draining.

“You’re physically taxing your body as you’re trying to come back, but I would say that even more than physically, it’s emotionally draining, just trying to stay focused on what you need to do to get back, while your teammates are on the court playing right now, and you can’t be out there. Just kind of keeping that long-term perspective in mind that I’m doing this grind every day so I can come back and be on the court again.”

One of the great challenges of her recovery came as a result of that desire to get back out on the court. A recent study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine states that the likelihood of a second ACL injury in the same knee in the first 12 months after reconstruction and return to sport has been reported to be “15 times greater than a previously uninjured cohort.”

The study also shows that there is a high incidence of a tear in the opposite leg within two years of the initial injury and that likelihood is greater in females. Eaton had to be smart and have a good plan during the rehab process, and guided by the medical professionals around the program, she did.

Eaton is the Cougars' second-leading scorer so far this season. Photo by Mark Philbrick (BYU Photo)

Eaton is the Cougars’ second-leading scorer so far this season. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

“It took a while (to get back to full strength), but I did a lot to prepare for it,” Eaton said. “I took a lot of precautions, and I built up to playing full speed by playing some one-on-one with  people that I knew weren’t going to hurt me so I could try out a lot of different things and get used to my body again. It was just piece-by-piece, putting it all together again.”

As this season approached, it was clear that Eaton was on target to be back on the court right for the opening game. That placed a burden on head coach Jeff Judkins to help manage her return to action.

“I would say timing and her feel, she’s probably not quite where she was last year (before she got hurt),” Judkins said in early November, just before the season opener. “She’s coming, she’s gradually getting better. The hard part, for a coach is you see how she plays and you worry that she’s going to do it again. The chance of getting hurt again is high, so I have to be smart as a coach. When she gets tired, I need to get her out. I think that mentally she’s done a good job with that, of not being afraid. Sometimes the mental part of it is harder than they physical part.”


Back On the Court

Now, 14 games in, the knee does not seem to be a concern, and with each game, Eaton seems to be the kind of player she has always been.

“I want her to be the best all-around player in the league,” Judkins said. “That means get to the basket, get your shot, defend, feed the post and run the floor. I think she has the potential to do that. She knows that. I tell her that all the time. You don’t just want to be a one-dimensional player. One thing she has worked on is her outside shot, which is a lot better than it was last year.”

When Eaton came out of Springville High School in 2011, expectations were high. During her junior and senior years in high school, she led the state in scoring and lifted her teams to back-to-back state championships. She was the best player in the state those two seasons. She was also an all-state soccer player and a state champion in the high jump.

Of course, in high school basketball she had the ball in her hands all the time, and that meant a big adjustment in coming to the next level.

“I knew Lexi was going to be a great player,” Judkins said. “Her biggest problem was she was used to doing everything herself and it’s really hard to adjust to that. I’ve tried to help with that, (to help her) realize that she doesn’t have to do it all herself. I thought that last year she did a really good job, a lot better than she did her freshman year, with understanding when to come. Hopefully when she gets her rhythm back, she’ll come back to that.”

She has accepted Judkins’ teachings well. She is adjusting to competing against more talented players.

“At Springville, I definitely relied on my athleticism more than my mental part of the game, just because I could,” Eaton said. “It always worked for me. That was a blessing and a curse for me, because once you get to the next level, people are more athletic and that doesn’t always work for you. I think now I’m a smarter player. I’ve not necessarily tried to go away from my athleticism, but to use other parts of my game so I don’t always have to rely on my athleticism.”

Attacking the basket has always been a big part of Lexi Eaton's game. Photo by Mark Philbrick (BYU Photo)

Attacking the basket has always been a big part of Lexi Eaton’s game. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

Her transition to college basketball was even better than many anticipated. She played a major role as a freshman starter on a BYU team that won the West Coast Conference tournament and reached the NCAA tourney. The early success was not a surprise to her high school coach.

“Her transition has not surprised me,” said Nancy Warner, who is now the head coach at Lone Peak High. “She has such a great work ethic and never settles. She is always striving to be better or perfect a certain aspect of her game. She is a relentless athlete who will give you everything and do whatever it takes to be successful. Because of that attitude, she is very coachable and has been able to quickly learn BYU’s system and adapt to her role on the team there.”

Eaton hit the ground running and was a double-figure scorer as a Cougar freshman. She was well on her way to improving on the 10.5 points per game she averaged that season when the injury cut her second season short. She was leading the team with 15.6 per contest during those first eight games. The injury came early enough in the season that Eaton was able to reclaim her sophomore status this year, after a medical redshirt.

Some rough shooting nights early on this year have put her a bit behind the pace in terms of shooting percentage, but the good nights have outnumbered the bad. As Eaton gets back up to speed, her future is bright. She is currently the No. 2 scorer for the Cougars at 16 points per game and has increased her assist and rebounding numbers as well. The Cougars are 12-2.

Eaton, and her teammates have big plans, as the talent level has them set for a strong run in 2013-2014.

“I think we have all the pieces for (winning the conference title). We’ve just got to put it together,” Eaton said. “Definitely the conference and getting into the NCAA tournament and going deep, not just going to the first round. We have high expectations. We want another banner up there in the rafters.”

Her high school coach believes in Eaton.

“I believe she will come back stronger because of her work ethic and positive perspective with everything she does,” Warner said. “I know she has worked incredibly hard both on and off the court throughout her recovery. She will come back even stronger, both physically and mentally. She is an incredible athlete and example.”

BYU's women's basketball team is off to a 12-2 start. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

BYU’s women’s basketball team is off to a 12-2 start. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Eaton said she will resume the other half of her BYU athletic career in the spring. The former high school high jump champion was part of the track team her freshman year, and she intends to pick up where she left off in that sport as well.

“My jumping knee is the healthy one, which is awesome,” Eaton said. “As long as I’m healthy, Juddy doesn’t have a problem with it. We’ll see.”

She has set high individual goals on the basketball court as well.

“The most important thing for me is to help my teammates be the best they can be so our team can be the best,” Eaton said. “I also want to be the best in the conference, the best player, and hopefully All-American as well, so I have high expectations.”

Lexi Eaton has cleared every bar in her path thus far, including a strong recovery from this ACL injury, so there is no reason to doubt her. There is just something about her personality that makes you believe she will accomplish all of her goals.

“I would say my competitiveness and my love to win (is my strongest trait),” Eaton said. “I hate losing. I don’t take no for an answer. I’m doing everything I can to win. Whether it’s basketball or soccer, or whatever, I’m out there to win.”


Kurt Johnson is the owner and managing editor at Preps Utah, a publishing venture that covers high school sports throughout the state of Utah. He previously worked as a sports writer and editor in the Sacramento, California area and with the magazine publishing division at McGraw-Hill. Kurt lives in Provo with his wife, a PhD student at BYU, and his daughter, a student at BYU. He also has two older sons and four grandchildren.

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