How NIU women's basketball puts focus on limiting knee injuries

Almost nothing in life is foolproof, and the Northern Illinois women's basketball team got a dose of that reality when guard Errin Hodges went down with a preseason knee injury.

Yet, NIU women's basketball coach Lisa Carlsen is still ecstatic so far with the results her players are getting out of a comprehensive training program that they are doing on a daily basis to help prevent knee injuries.

The Huskies, projected to be one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference this year, have been "knee-deep," so to speak, in the program since January and have kept up their routine even as the season started this week with a home game against Harvard on Tuesday.

The program is with a knee guru consultant who has devised customized exercises for each NIU player to help prevent non-contact knee injuries. Those are devastating, sometimes season-ending knee injuries that occur inexplicably when an athlete might simply be running in a straight line, or planting on a leg that she has planted on dozens of times before and it just gives out, even though no one else is around her and she doesn't fall on it.

Hodges, who was in line to be a starter this season for the Huskies, suffered her injury when another player ran into her forcefully while she was in motion.

She had season-ending surgery on Oct. 26.

"Nothing can be done in this knee program for injuries like Errin's," Carlsen said. "You can't really prevent those injuries that happen with contact. We wish that weren't the case because Errin had a great offseason and preseason. She has a dynamic that we don't have with her speed and quickness and length. We wish we had her healthy.

"But this program is specifically about those non-contact injuries. And in that aspect, I think we have seen significant results so far."

Carlsen was desperate to find a way to tackle the dreaded knee injury.

In the last two years, four NIU players have had their seasons ended by knee injuries, and three of them, Courtney Woods, Myia Starks and Janae Poisson, had injuries that were classified as non-contact.

Woods, a redshirt senior guard who will finish her career as one of NIU's all-time leading scorers, went down seven games into last season on a routine move to the basket with no one nearby.

Poisson went down twice, in back-to-back seasons, with season-ending non-contact knee injuries, to the same left knee.

"We are so sensitive to the knee thing that we are willing to do anything if it might minimize the risk," Carlsen said. "It's been well-received by the kids."

The knee guru came to DeKalb last December to introduce the program and then has come back in January, April, July and October to evaluate each player's progress.

Pictures are taken of how the knee looks in different positions and the goal is to have the knee stay solidly over the feet at all times, rather than caving in or falling out of alignment.

"The kids do a lot of single-leg stability drills since no one really plays on two feet anymore. There are so many step-throughs in our game now, so there needs to be strength there," Carlsen said. "When body weight goes outside of the confines of the structure of the body, then trouble can happen. We are focused on strengthening that area through those drills and through weights."

Carlsen has her players spend at least 15 minutes each day on their stability drills, even on days of games. And then there is an entire focus in the weight room dedicated to knee strength.

"It's something we want to invest in," Carlsen said. "We want to understand this better, and we want to do as much for prevention as we possibly can."

Ready, set, go: Northern Illinois came up with a disappointing 59-53 loss to Harvard in its season opener on Tuesday. It was an uncharacteristic performance by the Huskies, who had a rough shooting day. Last year, Northern Illinois was one of the top shooting and scoring teams in the Mid-American Conference, averaging 73.3 points per game.

Meanwhile, the DePaul women opened the season on Friday with an opening round game in the preseason WNIT tournament against another MAC team, Miami of Ohio. The Blue Demons have been picked to win the Big East Conference title this season.

And Northwestern opens the season on Sunday (3:30) at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Loyola Maryland. The Wildcats are coming off a run last season in which they reached the championship game of the WNIT tournament. They came up short in that game, falling to host Arizona, 56-42.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

The Northern Illinois women's basketball team has already suffered a season-ending knee injury but the Huskies are still optimistic about the daily drills they do to help prevent catastrophic knee injuries. Photo courtesy of NIU Athletics
The Northern Illinois women's basketball team has already suffered a season-ending knee injury but the Huskies are still optimistic about the daily drills they do to help prevent catastrophic knee injuries. Photo courtesy of NIU Athletics
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