Never-ending story: Injuries break a career

Northwestern’s best spring athlete not named Luke Donald sat down on her bed in the first week of February with tears streaming down her face, lamenting a career suddenly lost.

Brooke Siebel, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in softball, had just come to the realization that her time on the diamond at NU would be cut short a year early by a hip injury that had a year to heal and did anything but.

And last Saturday, as her team saw its chances for a conference tournament bid slip into oblivion in Iowa, Siebel sat in Wrigley Field taking in the Cubs 20-1 demolition of the Dodgers. A day later, the Wildcats ended their season, but Siebel studied books – not pitchers – in a library hundreds of miles away.

Chalk it up as another frustrating weekend for Siebel, who all season was not allowed to travel on the road with her team.

Her troubles began before her junior season, the year that would eventually bring her the conference’s greatest honor. In the final minutes of a routine practice, Siebel stepped on a teammate’s foot in a rundown, causing ligament damage in her right ankle that shelved the third baseman and pitcher for the first 14 games of 2000. Missing those games was tough enough – after all, she hadn’t missed a contest in her life, even after hundreds of trips to in the pitching circle and countless plate appearances.

But the ankle injury wasn’t the end of her season or her troubles – not by a long shot. Back into the fold by the start of the conference schedule, Siebel started mashing the ball all over softball diamonds like no one else in the league could. With her bat in the lineup last year, the Cats had a shot at winning the conference until the last day of the regular season, and they were just two games away from making the College World Series.

Success, however, had its costs.

Coming back from ligament damage meant wearing a brace on the ankle, which was about 70 percent when she returned. And wearing a brace meant altering her pitching motion ever so slightly.

The pain was there in her hip the second time Siebel pitched in practice, a nasty result of the changes brought on by the brace meant to support her.

“Pitching is a violent motion in itself,” Siebel says. But at the time she had no idea just how damaging the attempt to go through her old motion could be. It turned out that the pain in her hip only got worse as the season went on. Even after she stopped pitching – giving up seven runs to DePaul was enough to convince everyone that hitting might be all they could expect from her – the pain intensified.

By the end of the season, walking from the dugout to the on-deck circle was a chore.

“I thought it was arthritis at first. I was like, ‘God, I’m getting old,'” Siebel says.

Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t getting old. Siebel was injuring herself to the point of never being able to play again at NU. By the time summer rolled around, the ankle had long since healed and the hip was still maddeningly unresponsive. No one had any idea what the problem was.

Then came the first MRI. It finally revealed what no doctor, no trainer and no X-ray could determine: Siebel had suffered a stress fracture in her right hip as a result of trying to pitch with the brace.

She was stuck doing exactly what she hated most – nothing.

By the time January of this year rolled around and two more MRIs had come and gone, Siebel was ready to give it another shot, although she hadn’t so much as mimicked a pitching motion in more than six months.

Half a year was not enough.

“I couldn’t walk,” Siebel says, her eyes widening at the memory of the January comeback attempt. “I was trying to figure out, ‘Well, what the hell?’ I got these two MRIs and they showed that it was healing.”

Indeed, the hip had healed. Only not in the way doctors hoped it would. Where a stress fracture had been, a cyst now appeared, likely from fluid seeping into the crack in the bone.

Crushed, Siebel had to sit once again, praying the cyst would heal in time for her to play. She went to Florida with the team for its first tournament, wondering what the point of the previous eight months had been.

The doctors had warned her she might end up with a degenerative hip if she continued to play with pain for another year, but they gave her the green light to practice in Florida.

The pain was still there, and the danger too great. Siebel came back to Evanston and opted to shut it down for the year – her senior year, and her last chance to play softball as an undergraduate.

The Cats played on without her, stumbling to an eighth-place finish in a conference they hoped to win with her in the lineup.

Siebel awaits a June date with a surgeon’s knife, hoping that the end of her ordeal might finally be in sight – even if another year of rehab stands in the way.

She desperately wants to play again some day – “It’s what I was born to do,” she says – and Siebel still has a year of eligibility left with the NCAA. But with a degree headed her way in June, that year won’t be spent in Evanston. Rehab is on the horizon, and it may not be until 2003 that she is healthy enough to give softball one final shot.

The unanswerable questions that began piling up 17 long months ago remain today.

What if Siebel hadn’t pitched her junior year? What if an MRI had been done earlier? What if she had been able to play this year?

“I hate it,” Siebel says. “On Saturday I kept getting on the Web to see if (the NU game) was updated.

“Even when I watch baseball, I’m like, ‘I want to hit now.'”

Sometimes a heavy heart hurts more than a bum hip.