STRYKER — As Stryker senior Courtney Stewart warmed up for her team's basketball game against Pettisville on Jan. 17, she couldn't help but feel a little nervous.
It'd been almost a year since she last played in a high school basketball game, and dating back to a mid-June basketball shootout where she tore her ACL, it'd been seven months since she played in any sporting contest at all.
And as tipoff with the rival Blackbirds approached, certain fears began to creep into her mind.
"I had the mindset that it could happen again," she said. "The entire JV game and then warmups, I was a mess."
But once the game got going, Stewart began to feel like her old self again. She scored 11 points and pulled down nine rebounds to help lead her team to a 46-34 victory that night, and it's been more of the same since.
The Panthers are 3-0 since Stewart's return, and with averages of 13 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, she's been a big part of it.
But then again, she's always been a big part of her team's success. Even in junior high, Stryker coach Steve Brown said he could see the confidence and competitiveness she plays with to this day.
"She was a bulldog," Brown said with a smile. "And if you didn't get out of her way, you were going to get run over. But she's a hard-nosed kid, and that's continued with her throughout her career, and that's why she was able to come back from the injury she came back from. You could see that from an early age. She's a very determined individual."
After predominantly spending her freshman year on junior varsity, Stewart moved up to varsity as a sophomore and was inserted into the starting lineup right away, playing a big role in a 20-5 season and Stryker's second consecutive Buckeye Border Conference title.
Then, as a junior, Stewart fully came into her own. She averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game for a team that went 24-3, won its third straight BBC title and the program's first district title since 2012.
With six seniors lost off the 2018-19 squad, though, it meant Stewart would be looked to as one of Stryker's unquestioned leaders for the 2019-20 season, and a summer basketball shootout at Elmwood High School was going to be one of her first opportunities to showcase that ability.
Midway through the shootout, however, it all seemed to come crashing down for a moment when Stewart's left knee gave out, and she fell to the floor with a torn ACL.
Stewart had to be carried off the court, but she didn't sulk for long, immediately turning her attention to recovery. She had surgery soon after, and when it came time for rehab, Stewart had the option to go at 6:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m.
She chose waking up at the crack of dawn to drive to Defiance, because even though she couldn't practice after school, she wanted to help her teammates in any way possible, which is something Brown said he'll talk about for a long time.
"If we needed the clock run or we needed a rebounder, whatever she could do, she was always doing something," Brown said. "Whether she was helping coach the kids during practice, or if I was out talking about something, she'd be talking to a teammate over on the sideline. Just the drive to lead her team, whether she was playing or not, is very, very special."
Stewart said it was tough to sit out during volleyball season and the first half of basketball season, but during games, she was always taking an active and vocal approach to coach her teammates from the sideline.
"It was definitely hard at first, and mentally it hurt a little bit," Stewart said. "But once I realized my teammates were still there for me — even though I wasn't on the court — and they could trust me with whatever I said, it really helped me. Everyone helped me and told me that everything was going to be fine, I was going to be back 100 percent and I can do whatever I put my mind to."
In Stewart's three games back in the lineup, Stryker is almost a different team. After struggling to a 6-9 start, the Panthers are 9-9 and rounding into form for another postseason run.
Upon graduation, Stewart said she plans on attending Northwest State Community College with the plan of going into physical therapy or nursing.
Whatever she decides to do, though, Brown has one idea for her.
"During one of the games where she was helping coach, I told her, 'You can sit right here on this bench with us next year,'" Brown said. "She understands the game of basketball very well, sees plays ahead of her, and she's got a bright future helping with younger kids. ... She could be a coach. There's not a doubt in my mind."