Ask any athlete what the worst part about being injured is and the answer you will likely get is the feeling of no longer being a productive member of the team. For sophomore centers Gabe Stephenson and Chris Vandenberg of the men’s basketball team, this feeling has been a constant for the majority of their time at Cornell. Now, following a series of injuries and months of slow recovery, both big men have returned to the Red and are ready to make an impact on the steadily improving team.
“Mentally the hardest part of an injury is feeling you’re still part of the team,” said Stephenson. “You don’t get to compete against them in practice and you don’t get to go through the hard workouts that they do.”
Just 14 months ago, Stephenson and Vandenberg took their places as principal members of head coach Steve Donahue’s first recruiting class on the Hill. Expectations of greatness were heaped upon the 6-8 Stephenson and the 6-10 Vandenberg, only to have those expectations go severely unfulfilled.
“Those two were part of my plan last year and neither one of them was really able to help us,” Donahue said. “The whole progress of [the] team and how you set your recruiting is about those two.”
Before playing even a single game as a member of the Red last season, Stephenson sustained a stress fracture to his foot that kept him out of action for the first eight games of the season. When he did return just prior to the start of the Ivy season, Stephenson was plagued by severe back pain that was eventually traced to patella tendonitis. Over the final 12 games of last season, Stephenson played more than 15 minutes only once.
“Gabe’s had an injury the whole time he was here. We never saw the real Gabe Stephenson,” said Donahue.
Over the summer, a bone spur pressing on his patella tendon was surgically excised, and he has finally begun to heal. The rehabilitation process has taken upwards of four months, but Stephenson is close to returning to the top of his game.
“Mentally it was kind of difficult, but I love the game of basketball, so I had to do what I had to do to get back on the court,” said Stephenson.
“Gabe’s probably on the verge of going full blow without need for treatment,” said athletic trainer Marc Chamberlain. “By the end of the season he’ll be close to 100 percent. Right now he’s at around 85-90 percent.”
Stephenson’s breakthrough came two weeks ago in a game against Columbia. In 12 minutes, Stephenson scored seven points and pulled down four offensive rebounds.
“For any one player to get [four] offensive rebounds in a game is remarkable,” said Donahue.
The coach is excited about the potential the Denver native holds in store for the remainder of the season. “He took the chance to get into the weight room and rehab not only his legs but his whole body. Now he’s a quicker, more athletic kid that we didn’t have. When the basketball rust comes off, I think you’ll see a whole lot better basketball player,” he said.
Vandenberg’s story has been far more complicated. After averaging over six points and six rebounds with a total of nine steals over last season’s first three games, Vandenberg dislocated his patella in practice the week leading up to last season’s game against Syracuse.
“Chris was so healthy when he got hurt, this was a devastating injury. What he has gone through over the last 14 months you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” said Donahue.
The dislocation coupled with the osteoarthritis that resulted from it kept Vandenberg out for the remainder of the season as he underwent surgery to repair his knee.
“I was a little disappointed,” he recalled. “Anger was another thing. I’m not gonna lie, you never want to get hurt. It’s always one of the worst things for an athlete. It was tough for the first couple of days.”
This summer, while practicing with the Canadian National Team, Vandenberg’s knee was unable to bear the newfound stress of the two-a-day practice schedule and his knee pain flared up.
He returned to Ithaca and had his knee drained several times before undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove built up scar tissue. However, he developed a staph infection following this second surgery that completely sidetracked his rehabilitation.
“[Rehab] was long. Some points you go for weeks and weeks without seeing any positives, but every now and then you could tell there was strength coming back, mobility,” Vandenberg said.
Having now completed a course of antibiotics to treat the infection, he is slowly working his way back, also experiencing difficulty with his other knee as a result of overcompensating for the original injury.
“To me that he’s playing basketball is amazing,” Donahue said. “I think that the players realize what he’s gone through, to just be on the floor, they appreciate it.”
“The long term rehab will continue,” said Chamberlain. “He’ll possibly be close to 100 percent next season.”
The return of both players has had an immediate effect on the team. Since Stephenson’s return Dec. 28 against LaSalle, the Red has gone 5-4, including 4-2 since Vandenberg’s return Jan. 5. The return has been the best medicine for both big men.
“Doing all the bike riding and all the pool workouts you want is not going to get you ready to play basketball,” said Stephenson.
The inside presence that these two provide has taken a lot of pressure off classmate Eric Taylor, who has done a tremendous job at center thus far. The Red has outrebounded its opponent in each of its last three games, all of which were Cornell wins.
“Eric’s been doing a great job, playing hard,” said Vandenberg.
“I think us being back gives him an opportunity to get a blow every once in a while because he’s been playing almost the entire game early on, and now it’s getting hard on him,” added Stephenson.
However, the road is a long one and far from complete.
“Rehab is still going on now,” said Vandenberg. “Even now it’s still not 100 percent. It will probably never be 100 percent, but getting the muscles back to 80 percent or 90 percent is possible and I’m not even there yet.”
Stephenson and Vandenberg will continue to play increased roles as the Ivy season progresses, and for the first time in two years, Donahue will have the inside presence that his team had been lacking.
“They are such a big part of what we’re doing that I think you’re finally seeing what it’s going to be like when they’re fully healthy,” he said.
“I’m happy just to be back out there with the guys,” Vandenberg said.
Archived article by Sun Staff Writer