GREENFIELD — There were some pregame nerves but zero hesitation.
As Katie Helgason darted around the basketball court with her blonde pony tail dancing behind her on Tuesday night, months of pent up energy flowed through the Greenfield-Central senior during warm-ups.
Slicing down the lane for a layup inside Shelbyville’s William L. Garrett Memorial Gymnasium, Helgason made a quick pivot as the ball dropped through net. With her eyes fixed forward, she sprinted over to the Cougars’ rebound line and filed in with a hop in her step, followed by another.
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There were less than eight minutes remaining before the opening tip against the host Golden Bears, but time stood still momentarily for the Ball State recruit, who didn’t know if she would make it back for the season, let alone this particular game.
More than three months ago, nothing was certain as Helgason crumbled to the soccer field at Franklin Central on Aug. 17, seconds before halftime, clutching her left knee, the beginning of what would become an unwelcome journey.
Diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament after an MRI was conducted within a week of her injury, the clock was set at anywhere from six to eight months. Maybe four, if she dedicated herself to rehabilitation and didn’t suffer any setbacks.
Greenfield-Central head coach Doug Laker targeted early January as a possibility for his star point guard’s return. Perhaps after Christmas before the City Securities Hall of Fame Classic in New Castle on Dec. 29, he mentioned in late October.
Helgason wasn’t content with any of those projections. Instead, much like she plays the game she loves, Helgason went full speed in her recovery and used only 118 days.
“It’s been three months and 13 days since my surgery,” Helgason remarked without delay. “It felt like a lifetime.”
Stopped in her tracks
“Honestly, I was in denial,” Greenfield-Central girls soccer coach Erin Clark said after Helgason’s injury.“I thought she would back. I moved ahead like she would be at practice the next day. When we found out it was an ACL tear, and she was out the rest of the season and maybe more, it was sickening.”
A multi-sport star in soccer, track and basketball, Helgason entered her senior year ready to compete from start to finish, just like the three previous. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. If anything, the 2016-17 school year appeared limitless.
She spent the summer months competing in the AAU basketball circuit with teammate and lifelong friend Madison Wise on Indy Magic. This past June, she helped the Greenfield-Central 4×800 relay team reach the state meet in Bloomington and set a new school record in 9:46.03 for 21st overall.
She was selected as a member of the Indiana Junior All-Star south group and played during a showcase game against the Senior All-Stars at Bloomington High School South in July.
The speedy, 5-foot-7 inside-outside threat ran the floor at J.R. Holmes Court with Wise, an Indiana Junior All-Star core group player, and received an offer from Ball State, which she accepted later that month.
As a junior, Helgason and the Cougars basketball team finished 23-5 and won their first sectional championship since 2003-04 while winning the Hoosier Heritage Conference outright at 7-0.
She averaged 11.0 points, 4.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.6 rebounds per game as Greenfield-Central fell one point short of a regional title against Roncalli, 46-45. Thoughts of another deep state tournament run in 2016-17 were on the forefront of everyone’s mind, including Helgason.
Then in the Cougars’ first soccer match of the season, everything stopped.
“With how hard she works, I was hoping she would be back,” Wise said. “Obviously, you never know for sure, though, but she was ahead of schedule, so there was a chance.”
Helgason and her family knew they were in good hands. Choosing Methodist Sports Medicine, Helgason’s knee surgery was performed by Dr. Thomas E. Klootwyk, an orthopedic surgeon, on Aug. 31.
“He’s the same doctor the (Indianapolis) Colts use,” Helgason said. “He’s was really awesome.”
After the procedure, Dr. Klootwyk estimated four months of recovery before Helgason could play again.
In the early stages of rehab, Helgason didn’t think that was a realistic goal as she contended with soreness and trying to regain the strength in her leg.
“The first month it was really hard. I wanted to get back, but I didn’t know if I would be able to get back,” Helgason said. “I didn’t really progress like I was suppose to, but then the last couple of months I really picked it up.”
By late September Helgason was walking without a noticeable limp, often attending soccer games as the team marched to the program’s first sectional title since 2012 and a regional championship appearance.
When basketball preseason training commenced, she rode the stationary bike in the trainer’s room at a break-neck pace while slipping into practices to shoot around. No scrimmaging or driving, she said, but she did what she could within limitations.
“When I could, people would rebound for me. My shot actually has gotten better, I think,” said Helgason, who led the team with 40 3-pointers made last season. “My layups haven’t got there yet, but they’ll come.”
Her progression exceeded expectations as rumors began swirling of her being ready for game action the closer the team reached the Laker Farm Implement/Riley Park Tire Tournament, which will runs Dec. 22 and 23.
“Honestly, I doubted it a little at first because I love that kid. I don’t want her to get hurt. Those kids are like daughters to me,” Laker said. “I’ve talked to the doctors and her parents, but it was up to her being ready to play.”
On Monday, she received clearance, which her mother, Tracy, celebrated on Twitter with a photo of her daughter holding up her release papers and the hashtags, “#hardworkpaysoff” and “#loveher”.
In her first game on Tuesday, Helgason scored 12 points with nine in the third quarter alone as Greenfield-Central snapped a three-game losing streak by beating Shelbyville 55-24.
“I’m so happy for her. How many people can come out after three months of major knee surgery and come back and play like that? Just to be back. That’s guts and courage,” Laker said. “That’s an amazing feat.”
Receiving a call from Laker on Monday night, informing her that she was going to start against Shelbyville, Helgason could hardly control her excitement.
She played in two-minute spurts during the game, going scoreless in her first rotation as Laker monitored her conditioning and comfort level while keeping her fresh.
While still shaking off the rust with only one full practice the night before, her impact was immediate.
“When she started practicing, you could feel it,” Laker said. “When her and Madison are together it’s the “it” factor. I don’t know how to describe it. They just light it up. The other kids gravitate toward that.
“It changes everything for us, and you can tell.”
Wise noticed the difference from the Cougars’ first possession.
“Almost the first play of the game I got a fastbreak pass from Katie, and I was like, ‘holy, cow!’ The system changes just like that when you get players back. It’s exciting,” Wise said.
On a few occasions, Helgason brought the ball up the court in her familiar role. Other times she roamed as a wing while Wise and freshman Hannah Farrell, who has started at point guard through the team’s first 10 games, ran the offense.
She missed her first three shots, including a pair of 3-pointers but tested herself both offensively and defensively. Pressing in the backcourt with Wise, she was disruptive. And with some gasps in the crowd, she made a smooth lateral move past two defenders for a layup that just rimmed out.
“I’ve been working on that a lot, cutting, so I would be comfortable with it. Cutting hasn’t really affected me, so I’m glad,” Helgason said. “It felt like I hadn’t been gone for a while. It felt like normal.”
Finding her shot
Her fourth attempt on Tuesday — a deep trey in the second quarter — hit nothing but net off a kick-out pass from Wise, who drew in the defense by playing the two-man game near the free-throw line.
The duo, who live across the street from each other, shared a quick high-five after the shot as Helgason was subbed out — all smiles.
“I can’t remember my freshman year, but I’m sure I’m as giddy as my freshman year’s first shot,” Helgason said. “I’ve learned to appreciate basketball a lot more now that I’ve been sitting out for so long and it was just awesome coming back and playing. It started out really good.”
It ended the same as she sank three consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter to put the team up 44-11. The last one was assisted by Wise as the tandem’s chemistry needed little reintroduction.
“What she brings for us in incredible. We have at least a month and a half left in the year, and what she’s going to bring is going to be better at the end,” Laker said. “I didn’t know if she was going to play or how much. She was awfully sore coming out of the game at first. She started and we took her out after two minutes, and she came over and said, ‘I’m ready to go.’ She worked so hard, so why not reward her.”
The biggest thrill, Helgason said, is being with her teammates on the court again, instead of watching from the bench in street clothes. While she was able to absorb the game with greater detail from the sidelines, implementing her knowledge to help the team win is her primary goal.
No more so, however, then this month as the Cougars look to defend their own tournament title followed by the first of two big tests at New Castle Fieldhouse.
“I’m glad I was able to come back for those things,” Helgason said. “That’s been our goal since freshman year. We’ve always wanted to be in the Hall of Fame Tournament, and we finally made it, so I’m excited to be able to play in that. I’m just happy to be back.”
Back on the Court
Name: Katie Helgason
Position: Point Guard
College: Ball State University
Achievements: Indiana Junior All-Star (south group), Hoosier Heritage Conference First Team selection, All-Hancock County First Team.
By the Numbers
Career: 9.0 points per game (650 total), 3.5 assists per game (253 total), 3.2 rebounds per game (228 total), 2.3 steals per game (163 total), 39 percent 3-pointer shooting (90 of 231), 42 percent field goal shooting (234 of 559), 62 percent free-throw shooting (92 of 148).
Junior Year: 11.0 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.6 rpg, 2.8 spg