Women's hoops feels Folkl's ACL tear

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPNET SportsZone


MARCH 12, 1998

There are a lot of ways to write this column, but the one that seems most honest also seems the most dangerous.

Dangerous because someone will accuse you of being maudlin or sappy or lacking perspective or on somebody's bandwagon. Dangerous because our society tends to respect "get over it" more than "it's OK to feel bad."

 Kristin Folkl
Kristin Folkl is an All-American in both basketball and volleyball.

Dangerous because emotions are supposed to play themselves out in the space of time allowed for commercial breaks, and to admit you care is akin to admitting weakness.

But when you see one of the best players in the game you love go down with a season-ending injury, and you just saw the college career end for another great player a couple of weeks ago ...

Well, whatever the danger, I'd rather be honest. I do feel bad. I feel really bad.

Stanford's Kristin Folkl tore the ACL in her left knee in practice Tuesday, and joins Connecticut's Nykesha Sales on the sidelines for this NCAA Tournament.

Compounding Stanford's misery is senior starter Vanessa Nygaard's blown ACL, which she did Saturday. Nygaard, whose heart is even bigger than the Grinch's grew to be after he discovered the Christmas spirit, says she will try to play with a knee brace.

You know she'll do it if the doctors and coach Tara VanDerveer will let her.

Folkl couldn't take such a chance even if she wanted to, as her injury appears to be more complex than Nygaard's, with some meniscus damage.

It's so hard to think of Folkl hurt. She seems invincible. A few practices to switch gears between volleyball and hoops? No problem. Broken fingers? Sprained ankle? Upset stomach? Flu? Never worry. If there were digs and kills to make, rebounds and points to be had, Folkl was there.

But we'll have this NCAA Tournament without her, and Sales and many others. Sales hurt her Achilles' tendon, but the rest are ACLs. They include Tennessee's Kyra Elzy, Drake's Lisa Brinkmeyer, Florida's Tiffany Travis, UConn's Shea Ralph.

That's not by any means all of them. You can't even remember all of them. The ACL has become the bogeyman of women's basketball, a lurking evil. Except it's not imaginary, it's real. You can't turn on a light and make it vanish.

It reaches and grabs people seemingly at random: the big and strong, the small and quick, the fastest, the slowest, the great, the good, the average.

There will be a lot of talk in the next few weeks about women's ACL injuries and research and prevention. That's necessary. Many theories are out there, and the more everyone knows, the better.

And there will be a lot of speculation about how the injuries affect the tournament, how the outcomes of certain games may change.

But forgive me if my first thought upon hearing confirmation of the seriousness of Folkl's injury wasn't, "Wow, what does that do to the bracket?"

If you've been a regular visitor to this column this season you've certainly seen a lot of Folkl material. That's not because I'm a Stanford fan.

One of the bad things about becoming a journalist is you have to stop being the traditional "fan" you grew up being. But that's also one of the good things.

Because the names on the front of the jerseys don't mean much to you. It's the names on the back that matter. You don't care if the kid is from Stanford or UConn or Tennessee or Oregon or Butler or Kingdom Come. You appreciate them all.

But Folkl stands out as a great kid even among great kids. She has that aw-shucks heroism to her, she's all the cooler because she doesn't act cool. Folkl cheers for her teammates and works hard and pats the little kids on the back when they come out to towel off the floor.

She goes out of her way to avoid taking credit for anything; she'll smile and talk to anybody; she's what people want their children to be like.

These things can be said about many women's players. But -- and I greatly fear this coming out sounding wrong, but I'll say it anyway -- Folkl having elite-level talent in two sports does set her apart. In fact, she has enough talent in either sport alone to set her apart.

And Sales, in hoops, has that same kind of talent.

For women's sports to truly become commercially successful, stars are needed. Name and face recognition. There's this egalitarian aspect to women's sports that's nice but also gets frustrating sometimes. Some people will say, "Why do you write about her and her and her so much, how about so-and-so, she works just as hard as they do!"

And you want to say, "Yeah, but she's just not as good."

Ah, but you don't want to be an elitist jerk, or a cheerleader, or be accused of having some agenda.

Don't get me wrong. Thousands of kids are worth watching and writing about. If I'm lucky, I'll keep telling as many of their stories as possible until the day I drop dead.

But there are those players who can carry the sport on their backs. Who will infuse the pro leagues with so much talent that the people who like to knock this sport will finally just have to shut up or move on and downgrade something else.

It's the players like Holdsclaw, Penicheiro, Sales, Thompson, Reid, Canty and Folkl who will do that. (That's not the entire list, just a good representation.)

Two of them, Sales and Folkl -- we pray there won't be any more hurt -- are not going to participate in this most wonderful time of the year.

The Earth will keep spinning, of course, and the tournament goes on. Neither woman is the type to feel sorry for herself, and both seem to have an admirable inner peace and self-confidence to help them through tough times. They'll rehab with everyone's best wishes and hopefully come back as strong as ever.

But this March Madness will miss their presence. And that is something to feel bad about.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star writes a regular women's basketball column for ESPNET SportsZone. Her e-mail address is mvoepel@kcstar.com.