After injuring her knee twice in a matter of weeks while playing two different sports, the pain became so limiting that it sent Sam Rajza the doctor’s office.
The two-sport senior standout at Holy Redeemer High School had suffered a torn ACL while playing in summer leagues in July. And doctors told her the recovery time to heal it would take about nine months.
“The first guy I went to said I wasn’t going to be able to play (this year) at all,” the daughter of Stanley and Rose Rajza of Plains said. “When I first heard, we were devastated. We just wouldn’t accept it.”
The recovery time for ACL injuries typically takes about nine months.
That would mean Rajza could forget about leading Holy Redeemer into Tuesday’s 6 p.m. battle with Saint Basil Academy for a second-round PIAA Class 3A girls basketball playoff game at Bethlehem’s Freedom High School.
Heck, she’d be lucky to be back in time for preseason softball practice for a Redeemer team trying to make a run at its third state title in her four years. So, frustrated by the thought of sitting out her final season for a Royals team making its seventh straight run to the second round of PIAA play, Rajza simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I wouldn’t,” Rajza said. “I wasn’t going to miss it. We did some research.”
Ultimately, the heady guard contacted the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia, which offered her a chance to return to playing sports in six months. That was more to her liking.
“I worked really hard in rehab,” Rajza said.
And on Dec. 23, little more than six months since she first injured the knee while landing awkwardly while going for a layup for her AAU team, Keystone Karma, and then re-injured it at summer softball practice, Rajza returned to the basketball floor for the Royals in a non-conference game against Scranton Prep.
Then she played the whole season, helping Redeemer win the Wyoming Valley Conference Division 2 title, play in its third straight District 2 title game and win a first-round state game for the seventh straight year.
“I was a little surprised — only two people in the state I’ve heard of have come back in this short of a time frame and had a successful season,” said Holy Redeemer coach John Jezorwski, who wasn’t hopeful of having Razja on the floor at all for this season. “But then, I wasn’t. Sam’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. She put in the time to get better.”
So did Rajza’s game.
When she returned to the floor, Rajza wasn’t the scoring machine who could put up 20 points on a given night — whether she was doggedly driving the lane or popping pretty 3-pointers from the perimeter.
Instead, she found cutting teammates with pinpoint passes, rallied Redeemer with rebounds, pushed her way through press defenses and cooly calmed down her teammates during the most flustering times.
“She changed her game,” Jezorwski said.
She became an all-around leader.
“Her scoring, for her, has gone down,” Jezorwski said. “But the points per game she generates has gone up. She’s distributing the ball. She’s almost doubled the assists she had last year — some of her passes are next-level passing. Her rebounding is more than it was, she’s more of a floor general now. That’s impressive, that as a senior she can change her game that way.
“All this from a player we didn’t even expect to have this year.”
Oh, she can still score, as evidenced by the 14 points Rajza put up in Friday’s 44-34 opening-round PIAA victory over Hughesville. But Redeemer relies on the added components to her game, which could be crucial against a Saint Basil team that traps and switches from odd-formation sets.
“This year, I tried to get my teammates involved,” Rajza said. “I tried to be more of a leader. I think it’s a very successful season. And I think I’ve been playing consistent, and am a good contributor for the team.”
Both Holy Redeemer and Nanticoke Area, the two teams representing the WVC in the second round of state play, will be counting on contributions from everyone as they try to advance to the PIAA quarterfinals.
CLASS 3A SECOND ROUND
HOLY REDEEMER (23-4) vs. SAINT BASIL (21-5)
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Freedom HS, Bethlehem
This is a rematch of a second-round state game from two years ago, which Redeemer won to advance to the PIAA quarterfinals.
Redeemer relies on ball sharing and balance, but everything seems to flow through 6-foot sophomore center Sam Yencha — who has had some spectacular postseason games during her two seasons. If she’s bottled up, the District 2 runner-up Royals will turn to Rajza, Julia Andreko or Cameron Marcinkowski — or all of them — for point production.
Saint Basil will counter with 6-foot freshman Dante Carter, who scored a game-high 17 points in a District 1 semifinal victory over Notre Dame Green Pond. Carter, who can also hit the 3-pointer, was a rebounding force in a first-round state victory over West Philadelphia, but top scorer Casey Remolde and Jules Gura can take the offensive lead at any time.
Saint Basil also likes to beat teams by breaking them with defense. The three-time District 1 champion Panthers seamlessly flow back and forth between the press, matchup and man-to-man defenses and created 21 turnovers doing it while winning a second straight district title over North Schulkill. They also out-gunned overmatched West Philadelphia, 45-21 in a state opener.
CLASS 4A SECOND ROUND
NANTICOKE AREA (22-5) vs. GWYNEDD MERCY (17-8)
6 p.m. Wednesday, Hamburg HS
In a battle between two fast-starting teams, early momentum could be important.
Gwynedd Mercy jumped out to a 19-1 lead over three-win Carver Engineering & Science and surrendered just two points in the third quarter of a 77-21 rout in a state opener.
Meanwhile, a Nanticoke Area team that has struggled in the first quarter of some big games got things in gear while scoring the first 10 points of a 42-31 beating of a Danville team that was missing two starters in the first round of states.
This should prove the first true test of PIAA competition for both.
The District 1 champion Monarchs are led by high-scoring Carly Heineman, but also feature some solid complimentary players in captain Marua Conroy and Kaylie Griffin — who put up 10 points in the state opener. The Monarchs reached the state semifinals last season and return the corps of the team that took them there while looking to take their PIAA run at least a step further this time around.
Meanwhile, Nanticoke Area’s press is coming back around.
Led by sparkplugs Katie Butczynski and Alyssa Lewis, the District 2 silver medalist Trojanettes forced nine turnovers in the first quarter and 22 for the game against Danville. Three-point sharpshooter Lisa Radziak leads Nanticoke Area’s offensive attack, but when she’s bottled up, Alyssa Lewis has a habit of stepping up. She scored a game-high 17 points against Danville. And it wouldn’t be wise to sleep on Trojanettes center Jil Baron, who came through with eight points at pivotal times and pulled down eight rebounds in the opening round of states.
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski