ST. JOHN — The Lake Central girls basketball team wrapped up its practice Monday with a bit of free throw shooting, but there was a catch.
If any players missed a shot from the charity stripe, Indians coach Joe Huppenthal had all of them do some extra conditioning.
It’s a tactic that many coaches use to simulate late-game, pressure free throws, while also getting their squads in better shape. However, senior Taylor Jaksich and junior Jen Tomasic didn't mind a little more running.
Lake Central’s top two leading scorers have each missed significant time on the court due to major knee injuries and at one point couldn't run at all. Now that they’re back, both players are grateful to once again play the game they love and have helped the Indians (10-9, 2-3 Duneland Athletic Conference) win eight of their last 10 games.
“It’s really fun, especially because last year was going to be my first year on varsity,” Tomasic said. “So being with these group of girls is way different.”
Tomasic was sidelined for almost her entire sophomore campaign at Lake Central and contemplated if she could even continue playing.
In July 2018, Tomasic tore the PCL in her right knee and had her AAU season cut short. She returned to action a couple months later in preparation for the Indians’ 2018-19 campaign but unfortunately ruptured the PCL in her left knee during a scrimmage in October.
The only silver lining Tomasic could find was that her injuries didn’t require surgery, but her recovery was still tough.
“For a moment, I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’” Tomasic said. “It’s so hard coming back, and mentally, I was thinking, ‘Is it ever going to be worth it? Am I ever going to get my speed back?’ I was really worried.’”
In those moments of doubt, Tomasic said she leaned on her teammates for support, and since then she has returned the favor.
After Tomasic worked her way back to appear in Lake Central’s last three games of the 2018-19 season, Jaksich went down with a knee injury of her own. She tore the ACL in her left knee in the Indians’ last regular season game against South Bend St. Joseph on Jan. 25, 2019, and underwent surgery May 10, 2019.
The senior forward now sports a long, black knee brace whenever she takes the court and continues to gain confidence with every basket scored, and perhaps more importantly, each hard tumble.
“Every time I fall down, the second I hit the ground, I see four other blue or white jerseys already there helping me up. That’s definitely a good thing to have,” said Jaksich, who will continue her career at Indiana University Northwest. “It’s scary, but I really don’t think about getting hurt with my knee anymore.”
Jaksich is averaging a team-high 9.1 points per game and scored a season-high 18 points in a victory over Mishawaka Marian in the Lake Central tournament. She is also tied with junior guard Abby Oedzes for the team high in made 3-pointers (24) and is shooting 36.9% from behind the arc.
The senior said she’s still not 100% healthy, but Huppenthal commended Jaksich not only for her strong performances on the hardwood but for her mental fortitude to even return in the first place.
“Truth be told, I really didn’t think she was going to make it back,” Huppenthal said. “Watching her, you just don’t know how ACL injuries are gonna go. But she was bound and determined to get back on the floor and did everything she had to do. … She could have very easily said, ‘This is not for me,’ and packed it in.”
Huppenthal shared that same outlook when discussing Tomasic’s rehab and described her as the head of the Indians’ defense. In addition to averaging 7.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, the junior guard also matches up with every opponent’s top player and hounds them for four quarters.
Her most recent defensive effort came in a thrilling conference road win over LaPorte on Saturday. Lake Central pulled out a 44-38 overtime victory, and Tomasic held Slicers senior guard and leading scorer Nyla Asad — who entered the contest averaging 18.4 points per game — to eight points on 3-of-14 shooting.
“That girl flat out takes pride on the defensive end, and from a coaching standpoint, it’s well-documented and known on our staff because all kids can’t do that,” Huppenthal said. “She knows night in and night out what she has to do, and that’s to stop our opponent’s toughest player. And she does it night in and night out.”
The Indians began their season 2-7 and lost their conference opener against Chesterton in double overtime. During that nine-game span, Lake Central was also defeated by Benton Central, Fishers, Hamilton Southeastern and Penn, who are all ranked in this week’s Indiana Basketball Coaches Association top 20 poll.
Tomasic and Jaksich said they were frustrated with their team’s rough start. But after facing some early-season adversity and overcoming their own personal obstacles, the junior and senior have their sights set on a memorable finish to the year.
“Everyone thought, ‘Oh, forget about LC. They’re not even going to be a problem,’” Jaksich said. “But look at our schedule, no one else compares to that. We’re peaking late, obviously. But we all know we can do it. Everyone else doubted us, so it’s definitely a good feeling that people are starting to notice us a lot more and that we’re on the map.”