"I've watched them fall. There's a way they fall, there's a way they scream."
OU women's basketball coach Sherri Coale's words left no room for optimism regarding what fans witnessed at Lloyd Noble Center Thursday night: the heart and soul of the Sooners, fifth-year senior Whitney Hand, rolling on the court, crying in agony while clutching her left knee. It was a surreal scene and, unfortunately, one we'd seen before.
In the 2009-10 season, Hand tore the ACL in her right knee just a couple games into the season. After missing the Sooners' run to the Final Four, Hand missed half of the following season due to surgery to repair cartilage damage in the knee discovered during rehab.
However, this time was different. This Sooners team was set up for a deep NCAA tournament run, filled to the brim with talent and plenty of depth. That was before the injuries started.
The Sooners lost Jacqueline Jeffcoat and Katherine Zander in the offseason to transfer, and then lost Lyndsey Cloman and Kaylon Williams for the year before the season even began. Then, just last week, the injury bug struck again when freshman Maddie Manning tore her ACL in practice.
With Hand's injury, the Sooners are down to just eight scholarship players on the roster. That's far from an ideal scenario, but thankfully, the Sooners aren't built around one person, so the season isn't automatically lost because of a particular player's injury.
However, none of those injuries can hold a candle to the significance of losing Hand for the season. Not only is Hand a great player, but she's an even more incredible person, leader, and friend. She truly cares about the well-being of her teammates, both on and off the court.
OU fans love her as well, perhaps more than any other women's basketball player in Oklahoma history. Just scroll through the list of encouraging words tweeted from fans, former teammates, and others involved in women's college basketball and you'll be able to get a small glimpse of the impact Hand has had in her five years in Norman.
I did a story on Hand when she was recovering from her first series of injuries, just a few weeks before she returned to the court in Jan. 2011. She told me then she tried to be a "team mom" of sorts; someone players could always come to for encouragement, advice, or just general conversation.
Even after her injury, she was extremely involved with the team, coaching and encouraging from the sidelines in every practice and every game. Hand didn't sit at the end of the bench like other injured players either. She sat right beside her head coach for every game.
I also spoke with Coale while working on the aforementioned story on Hand and she mentioned how lucky she was to coach Hand. Players like her come along only once in a lifetime and Coale realizes that more than most.
Hand maintained a very positive attitude after her last injury and, knowing her personality, she won't have any issues rebounding from this injury. With her history, she could apply for a sixth year of eligibility, and she'd probably be able to get that approved by the NCAA. However, as a fifth-year senior who's already married to NFL-bound quarterback Landry Jones, that route probably isn't the one Hand will choose to take.
The present is bleak for Hand; another season lost to a devastating knee injury—her final season at that. But Hand isn't going to sit around and feel sorry for herself. Just like last time, she'll pick herself up and move forward, encouraging her teammates along the way. It's a road she's been down before, although not a road she ever wanted to travel again.