It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
One of the biggest reasons the Loudonville Redbirds had been invited to Classic in the Country XV was because of junior guard Nikki Weber.
The ultra-smooth, athletic and talented guard had parlayed her set of skills into something special, and her reward was that she would lead her team into the Perry Reese, Jr. Community Center in Berlin and show the countless college scouts and fans there exactly why they belonged.
Yet when the Redbirds squared off with a strong Tuscarawas Valley team in game 14 of the Classic on Monday, Jan. 15, Weber was glued to the bench.
She did not report in, she did not showcase her immense skill set and she did not participate on the floor for one second in Loudonville’s scintillating 53-52 come-back win.
That was because during a game versus Norwayne months earlier she went down with an ACL injury that put an end to her junior campaign.
“A big reason we got to play at Classic in the Country this year is because of Nikki, and for her not to get to play is devastating,” Loudonville head coach Tyler Bates said. “But knowing Nikki, it isn’t her style to feel sorry for herself and sulk. She is right here cheering, calling out the plays and encouraging all of our kids to keep working hard and doing their best. That is the kind of kid she is.”
It is hard for Bates not to get emotional when he talks glowingly about his team’s spiritual, physical and emotional leader. However, it is not because he missed her outstanding gifts on the floor as a player, which he most definitely does, but rather because of the kind of person she is.
“She is a top-notch person, above all else,” Bates said of Weber. “I have told her many times that if I ever have a daughter, I want her to be like Nikki.”
Weber knew the moment she injured her knee that it was serious.
“We were scrimmaging Norwayne, and I was driving left, and help-side defense stepped in and hit my knee, and I tore my ACL,” Weber said. “I knew right away in my head what it was. Everybody was trying to encourage me to stay positive and think it was just the meniscus, but I knew in my heart exactly what it was.”
While she remains incredibly upbeat and positive in her recovery, Weber said there are days when the rehabilitation and not being able to play gets the best of her.
She credits her teammates and friends with supplying the magic elixir to get her through those times when she struggles.
“My teammates have been amazing,” Weber said. “I have some down days, and they can tell I am missing it and want to be out there with them. They talk me up. They goof around and help me stay positive, and that has been instrumental in helping me get through this.”
Once she found out it was the ACL tear, she realized her season was over, her dreams of what might have been playing on this currently undefeated Redbirds team were over, and the doubts and anguish seeped in.
This was supposed to be her big showcase year at Classic in the Country, but instead her dreams had been crushed. She now had to become the team’s number-one cheerleader, and in addition the coaching staff welcomed her to step into coaching mode.
That was where she found herself as the Redbirds came storming back from a double-digit deficit late in the third quarter against the Trojans, where they eventually pulled out a CitC one-point win.
“It was hard to sit there and watch, but having that great of friends and teammates who are like sisters to me to pull for, it makes it easier to become a cheerleader and encourage them to keep their heads up.”
Weber said the coaching staff put her in charge of making sure spirits remained high and becoming the encourager among the coaching staff.
The eternal optimist, Weber even said the injury has allowed her to see the game from a different point of view, of more from the coaching standpoint, which she said she hopes will enable her to understand the game better even more so when she returns next season.
It also has allowed her to see the strengths and weaknesses of her teammates, something else she said should benefit the entire team upon her return.
“It’s important to praise others’ strengths and point out their weaknesses and help them work on them to get better,” Weber said. “Sometimes it is easier to hear from a peer rather than from a coach. It’s not about tearing someone apart, but about helping to make them better.”
Weber said she is already envisioning the moment when she can once again take center court for the initial tip-off of the 2018-19 campaign. Then as a senior she can finally put this harrowing chapter of her life behind her for good.
Bates said the entire coaching staff and all of her teammates also are relishing that moment, even as they continue to grind through what has been an amazing season.
Bates said all basketball skills aside, Weber’s faith has been instrumental in helping her move past the struggles.
“Nikki has a lot of faith, and I appreciate her for that,” Bates said. “To miss your junior year and your AAU year during the most important year of your life is rough, but her faith will always carry her beyond whatever she faces, and there are going to be a lot of college coaches who are going to want to have her on their team once she gets back to full health. I can’t wait for her to get back out here.”