These days, Free State High girls basketball coach Bryan Duncan might as well give senior Paige Rothwell a whistle and clipboard.
Despite being injured and unable to play for the Firebirds, Rothwell is a fixture at practice and on the bench at games. She passes the ball to teammates during the pregame shoot-around, greets each starter as they’re announced with individual handshakes. She’s everywhere.
“She’s like an assistant coach,” Duncan said. “I think she gets more upset than anybody if we don’t play well in practice or games.”
“When she talks,” Duncan added. “They really listen.”
Rothwell’s senior season ended before she could break a sweat.
In Free State’s season opener against Emporia, Rothwell had just entered the game when a loose ball bounced into the open court in front of her.
Instinctively, she dove for it. Only, she planted her foot oddly on takeoff, and her opponent crashed down on top of her exposed leg.
“It hurt,” Rothwell said. “But in my mind I was like, ‘You’re fine, Paige. You’ll be all right.’”
Rothwell checked out and sat for the remainder of the game as a precaution, hoping time and rest would do the trick.
And after taking a few weeks off, all the while still suiting up for games and partially warming up with the Firebirds, Rothwell tried practicing over the winter break.
“I automatically knew something more was wrong,” Rothwell said.
An MRI later confirmed Rothwell’s fears, revealing a torn ACL and effectively ending her high school hoops career.
As of late though, even with surgery scheduled for late February, the injury isn’t such a sore subject.
“The girls all give me crap about it,” Rothwell said with a smile. “Because I was only in there for 30 seconds in the first game.”
She may catch a little heat every now and then, but as a senior and one of three team captains, Rothwell hasn’t shied away from making sure her voice is heard, too.
“She knows what she’s talking about,” junior co-captain Lynn Robinson said. “She’s been in our shoes before. The sophomores look up to all the captains, but especially Paige.”
Rothwell, who signed her letter of intent to play collegiate softball at Kansas Wesleyan (in Salina) this past fall, has been undergoing physical therapy as she prepares for surgery, after which she immediately plans to begin rehabbing.
“I don’t know if I can sit out any more games,” Rothwell said, hopeful for the opportunity to play out her senior season on the Firebird softball team this spring.
Not that her visits to her physical therapist — the visits often require a doctor’s note to give to Duncan when she’s late — have strayed her commitment to the team.
“She’s been here every day at practice,” Duncan said. “She hasn’t missed (one).”
Having never been through an injury like this one, Rothwell leaned the support of her teammates and coaching staff.
Perhaps more importantly though, Rothwell listened when everyone made it clear that, even if she was unable to play, there were ways to make her impact felt.
“It’s a huge deal to have her around,” Robinson said. “It’s really inspirational.”