NEW PALESTINE — Natalie Kehrt knows how quickly one’s life can change.
After a respectable sophomore campaign in which she averaged 6.9 ppg and 3.6 rpg, Kehrt, now a senior, was anticipating a bump in those numbers — and her role — entering her junior basketball season for the Dragons.
Until life happened.
A tear to her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) completely changed those plans, forcing Kehrt to watch from the sidelines. But after a full summer of physical therapy and countless hours spent in the gym, Kehrt is back better than before.
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“Natalie worked to a point where she is better (skills wise) than she was before the injury,” said New Palestine head coach Brian Kehrt, who is also Natalie’s father.
That hard work paid off Thursday in the team’s first contest of the 2015-16 season. The Dragons (1-0) allowed one point in the first quarter to visiting Connersville en route to a blowout win, 54-10. Kehrt drilled her first 3-point attempt since returning from injury and finished with five points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals without playing a minute in the fourth quarter.
“I kind of wanted to give an impression, not only for my team but all the fans and people who were supporting us,” Kehrt said. “I know I didn’t hit all my shots, but it was nice to hit that first one.”
Kehrt’s mother, Jan, reminded her after the game that she hadn’t started since her sophomore year, making the moment even more special.
“I thought she moved well,” Brian Kehrt added. “There were a couple situations where she didn’t finish. We’re happy to have her. That starting five has a special bond from playing together for so long. Since she is so good at penetrating, that’s (first shot) going to open up driving lanes for her down the road.”
Kehrt played in just 15 games last season for the 12-12 Dragons, scoring 28 points one season after leading the team in free-throw attempts. She played the second-most minutes of any New Palestine player during the 2013-14 season but — in the blink of an eye — it was all taken away.
During the last practice of the summer, in July 2014, Kehrt admitted to missing a shot and while following her miss, she felt something very different — something very wrong. It was her left knee.
“That was rough,” Kehrt said. “I ran to get the rebound and lost control. My knee just went out. I knew this was going to be bad.”
But hearing her name called in the starting lineup Thursday made it all worth it.
The Kehrts said they believe things happen for a reason and her experience actually had a larger affect. After spending months rehabbing, Kehrt now wants to pursue a career in physical therapy after high school.
And with her back on the court, New Palestine now has multiple scoring weapons able to spread opposing defenses thin. Connersville tried a 2-3 zone, but the Dragons countered with bombs from Kehrt and seniors Haley Stratman and Carly Hackler.
Kehrt, however, is just happy to be playing with her teammates again.
“We have been playing together since second or third grade,” she said. “It was hard not being on the floor with them. But I knew they had my back, and they knew I had theirs, too.”
Brian noted that from a personal standpoint, coaching aside, it was very difficult to watch his daughter go through an injury becoming unfortunately more common in today’s game.
“It’s one of the most painful things parents can go through,” he said. “She was much stronger than my wife Jan and I.
“A week into it, she tweeted she missed basketball. I knew it was going to be a long road. There were many weekends she got me out of bed to go to the gym and shoot. It’s great to see that pay off when a young person does that.”