December 5, 2001

Untimely Injuries Hurt Cornell

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If things keep going the way they are for the men’s basketball team (1-5, 0-0 Ivy), head coach Steve Donahue will have to start participating in his team’s practices. On a 13-man roster, only 10 were healthy enough to take part in a full practice yesterday, leaving just enough players to run five-on-five drills.

Freshman Gabe Stephenson was the first one to fall to injury. On Nov. 1, in a scrimmage against Niagara (2-3, 0-0 MAAC), the power forward broke the fifth metatarsal on his right foot.

Classmate Chris Vandenberg was the next to go. On Nov. 28, a day before the team was to take on national power Syracuse (9-0, 0-0 Big East), the 6-10 center went down in practice with a dislocated left patella and torn calf muscle.

Then just two days ago, the frontcourt took another hit as junior Jake Rohe turned his right ankle late in a Cornell win against Ithaca (2-3, 0-0 Empire 8).

Now the status of the team, which was uncertain going into the season thanks to a majority of freshmen on the roster, is even cloudier.

Vandenberg’s injury is the heaviest blow to the team. In the preseason, he played for the Canadian junior national team at the World University Games in Beijing. Coming off the international play, he set a school record for most blocks in a game by a freshman (7) in the opener against Canisius (1-2, 0-0 MAAC).

The rookie also led the Red in rebounding in each of the first two games of the season, and despite having missed half of the team’s games so far, is still leading it in blocks. Vandenberg’s 6.3 rebounds per game leads the Red, and his 6.3 points per game is fourth on the team.

Cornell will be without its biggest player for the rest of the season. After initial projections that Vandenberg would only be out four to six weeks, the injury looks much worse than originally thought. After the kneecap was dislocated, a pint and a half of blood was drained from the joint, and now the knee looks swollen again and marked with damaged tissue. The center is scheduled for surgery on Friday.

Donahue bemoaned the loss of his starting center as an asset to the Red. He also considered the emotional impact the injury has on the freshman who had just begun his collegiate career.

“It will be taxing on him mentally not to be around the group as much as he would like, not being able to contribute, not playing basketball,” Donahue said. “He’s going to have to sit and watch and know that he can help us and not be able to do it.”

Stephenson, on the other hand, is on the road back to active duty. He has begun practicing with the team in a limited role this week, and his official status is listed as “day-to-day.” Donahue is targeting a Dec. 22 matchup against Lehigh (0-6, 0-0 Patriot League) for the freshman’s first collegiate game.

“Gabe has done a terrific job in the month. He’s been in the weight room, he’s been around here, he’s stayed involved, he’s really chomping at the bit to get back into playing,” Donahue said.

Donahue and the trainers aren’t even precisely sure how Stephenson broke his toe.

“Someone must have stepped on his toe, and what they think is that he had a stress fracture for a while and ignored it, and then something happened during that night that made it break,” Donahue explained.

At 6-8, the Red could use Stephenson’s size to help on the glass. The Red has been outrebounded by an average of a 41-32 margin so far this year.

Rohe’s injury, while not as severe as those of his two teammates, still is putting his status for tonight’s game in question. The forward had to be helped off the court after going down at midcourt toward the end of the Ithaca game. He was in street clothes for Cornell’s practice yesterday and was still limping.

Rohe’s ankle injury jeopardizes his streak of 33 consecutive starts — a team best. He started every game last season and all six contests so far this year.

The silver lining in the cloud is that the Red has been able to get a closer look at some of the other freshmen.

“We weren’t a finished product anyway. We’re still finding out who we are,” Donahue said. “Other guys are just going to have to step up.”

Cody Toppert has been the brightest spot in the rookie class, proving himself to be a threat to score from anywhere on the court, as well as acting as an offensive spark. Eric Taylor has also stepped up, averaging 7.3 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game since Vandenberg’s injury. Taylor has paced Cornell in rebounding in that time. Freshman forward Grant Harrell has also seen their minutes increase, and each chipped in with a three on Monday night.

Archived article by Alex Fineman