Penn's Knapp soldiers on with torn ACL, MCL

Jess Knapp will play the last home games of her Penn career Friday and Saturday. "If I decided not to play, it would kill me every day . . .," the two-year captain said.
Jess Knapp will play the last home games of her Penn career Friday and Saturday. "If I decided not to play, it would kill me every day . . .," the two-year captain said. (University of Pennsylvania)
Posted: February 24, 2012

At a recent practice, Jess Knapp, a senior captain on Penn's women's basketball team, left the Palestra court for a little while. All her teammates didn't necessarily know where she went, but her coaches knew. Quakers head coach Mike McLaughlin related all this, how Knapp returned for the end of the practice, getting back into the workout, not skipping a beat.

In between Knapp hustled down the street to a doctor's office to get blood drained out of her left knee.

"I think a lot of these girls are looking at her like, 'Wow. And I'm going to complain if I have a jammed finger?' " McLaughlin said.

Knapp has been playing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn medial collateral ligament in that left knee since suffering the injuries Dec. 30 in a game at San Diego State.

Knapp will play the last home games of her Penn career Friday and Saturday nights with a torn ACL and MCL basically because she knows this is it. She didn't want to end her career on a surgical table.

Right after that San Diego State game, Knapp said she told her coach: "This isn't over!' He kind of looked at me like, 'OK, take it down a notch.' "

"As soon as it happened, I knew," Knapp said, since she had missed her freshman season with a torn right ACL. "I was nauseous. I was flush. . . . I knew it had happened again."

The fact that the MCL tear is in the back of her knee is important. Knapp said she was told she wouldn't have been able to play with an ACL tear if there was meniscus damage "in an area that could get lodged up into my kneecap, like locked in my joints."

After missing a month, she returned to the court, playing a game three days after she was cleared to practice, and remembers feeling "a little slow. I was very aware of playing without an ACL, also playing with a brace, which I never had done. Also, conditioning - I hadn't played basketball for a month."

Her minutes were rationed, but playing time gradually increased. Her role isn't ceremonial. The 5-foot-11 forward led Penn with 11 rebounds in a recent overtime victory at Dartmouth and had nine rebounds to lead the Quakers in Saturday's win at Columbia.

"The doctor said about 20 to 25 percent of the kids are able to do what she's doing. The 70 or 80 percent that don't do it, it's all because of here," McLaughlin said, pointing to his head.

Both ACL tears came on actions she had performed thousands of times, she said. The first time, she had grabbed a rebound and come down before her leg was fully braced for the impact. This last time, it was landing on a jump stop after one dribble, "a move that I'd done literally a thousand times."

Knapp, a psychology major who has signed on to be a teacher in Philadelphia with Teach for America after graduation, knew there are risks in deciding to play. She also thought about what not playing would be like for her.

"It's kind of convoluted," she said. "In one sense, it's my last season, and I want to play, and I want to play well. If I decided not to play, it would kill me every day to sit at the end of the bench, so it's very selfish in one aspect."

Before the season, McLaughlin had told Knapp, a two-year captain, that when she graduated, the goal should be to "not have any regrets. We want you to feel fulfilled, leave with a good taste in your mouth."

That's what this weekend represents for her, playing Friday against Dartmouth, before one last Palestra game Saturday against Harvard. She'll have three road games to close her career.

"I'm going to go shoot," Knapp said at the end of a noontime interview earlier this week. After that, she had to walk down the street to get her left knee drained again before practice.

"Honestly, it hasn't been too bad. Sometimes, I'll make a move that aggravates my knee, but it's not debilitating. It's sort of like, 'Oh,' " she said, mimicking a wince. "It's kind of uncomfortable. But honestly, those are very few and far between. I go days without even noticing I'm missing some ligaments right now."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com, or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus.

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