For Neuquas Braasch, Hedrick, basketball is an escape
Kennedy Braasch sounded like a big sister with her parting words.
"Be careful when you're talking to Allison," said Braasch, speaking of fellow Neuqua Valley senior Allison Hedrick.
The only seniors on Neuqua Valley's basketball team are bound by their own separate pain, physical and emotional.
Basketball brought them together as freshmen. Basketball, and friendships formed there, in part keeps them going.
Four years ago, a day after Thanksgiving 2008, the Hedricks got a call that changed their life.
Allison's older brother Grant, then 17, suffered a seizure while at work. Tests revealed that Grant had a cancerous tumor in his brain. Grant, who played volleyball at Neuqua, underwent four surgeries over the next few years. He goes in every two weeks for tests and blood work and is trying a new medication also used for Alzheimer's.
The tumor was removed from the left frontal lobe, but there is still the risk of the cancer returning.
In one of the surgeries, Grant lost function in his right arm and the right side of his body weakened.
Allison was in eighth grade when Grant was diagnosed with cancer. She understands better now its impact.
"Every day it's a struggle for him, and I witness it," Allison said. "You ask 'Why?' but God has a plan for everything. We try to stay as positive as possible. Grant is very positive and doesn't let it hold him back."
Grant only has the use of one hand, and his mental health is a little slower. He repeats some things, stares off into space. He does, though, take a class at the College of DuPage and works at Giordano's. He doesn't play sports anymore but is just as competitive playing card games, board games or video games.
It is not easy for Allison to see her 21-year-old brother living at home.
Grant's inner strength holds up her hopes for him.
"I had a conversation with him two weeks ago and I asked him, 'Are you sad?'" Allison recalled, "and he said 'No. You can't change what has happened.' Seeing his positivity and optimism pushes the rest of our family forward. We want to live as normal for him as possible, hopefully someday see him get married and have a family."
Meanwhile, Braasch refuses to give up basketball, and her teammates, even as her body doesn't cooperate to keep her on the court.
Braasch was always unlucky with injuries — hamstring pulls, bad ankles and knees — but she still played freshman "A" ball and started the next year for the sophomore team. Even through ankle issues in middle school, she never suspected that things were out of alignment.
On Blue and Gold Night her junior year, though, she tore a ligament in her thumb that cost her most of the season.
Then, at a game in Oregon last summer, with two minutes left and leading by 30 points, Braasch sprained the MCL in her knee diving for a ball. Recovery time was thought to be a few weeks, but healing was much slower than expected. Intense physical therapy was recommended. Doctors found that Braasch's knees probably hadn't been "in place" for 17 years.
At the beginning of the season, Braasch would practice one day, take a day off. Then take two days off, practice a day.
It even hurt to walk to class. Braasch's gait resembled more a senior citizen than a 17-year-old.
"I would go home and I wouldn't be able to walk on it," Braasch said. "It hurt, and the medicine I got I grew a tolerance to. It's not the way I pictured my senior year going."
On top of it all, Braasch found out Dec. 4 that she had mononucleosis and an enlarged spleen. Now she cannot practice again until Jan. 4, for fear that the spleen could rupture with a hard hit.
It won't keep Braasch away. She still works the clock at practice, sits on the bench for games and offers support.
The games she can't make out of sheer exhaustion, Braasch will inevitably get a text from a teammate like Lauren Deveikis making sure she's OK. At this year's Blue and Gold she received letters from teammates, testimonials that she was their inspiration, helping out when she knew her knees hurt.
"I try to do as much as I can. The team, they're like my second family," Braasch said. "(Neuqua) coach (Mike) Williams, he's not going to be able to get rid of me that easy."
True to her silver lining-type attitude, Braasch told Williams that the mono could be a blessing in disguise, to rest up her knees. She has set her sights on starting come Senior Night.
There is Braasch at practice, sitting there with two bags of ice on her knees. All Williams asks is that Braasch tell him if "it's a good day or a bad day."
"She is always looking at the bright side," Williams said. "She's the backbone of what we're all about, the heartbeat of this team. I don't know how many people, adults even, that could go through the things she's gone through physically and still try to practice."
"She doesn't feel sorry for herself," Hedrick said. "She's not there for herself; she's there for the team."
Basketball alone won't remove the burdens Braasch and Hedrick face every day.
But for a few hours — at practice, a game, or even just a dinner with the team — it can be a time to get away.
"What I've tried to relay to them is that we all have our stories and that we try to use the basketball arena as a time for you to have peace," Williams said, "to get away from the reality of the world. It's your solemn place to find comfort, to drop your bags out the door. They've both seemed to embrace that concept."
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96
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