Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Weithman: A scorer reborn

Blake graduate leads nation in points per game for MC-Rockville

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Coming through the county’s youth basketball ranks, Melissa Weithman always thought of herself as a scorer. But in high school, first at Good Counsel and later at Blake, two knee surgeries made sure that’s not how others thought of her.

It seems Weithman was right all along. The 2005 Blake graduate and Montgomery College-Rockville sophomore is the leading scorer in the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III.

‘‘Being in college and having that title — ‘She’s the scorer, she’s the threat’ — it’s a great feeling,” Weithman said. ‘‘After all I’ve been through, I’m the one people are looking out for. In high school, I was always the girl getting hurt. Now I’m the girl who needs to be stopped.”

Weithman, a 5-foot-8 guard, was averaging 23.5 points per game through Sunday. She also ranked sixth nationally in free-throw percentage (80.0), 19th in 3-point shooting percentage (33.9) and 21st in steals per game (3.4). The Knights (13-11 overall) are undefeated against Division III programs, and 6-7 in the Maryland JuCo League, which mostly includes NJCAA Division II schools.

‘‘First of all, I think she’s a very determined player who loves to win,” MC-Rockville coach Tarlouh Gasque said. ‘‘She’s an excellent 3-point shooter, which makes a big difference. What’s good is, she’s not limited to shooting from the 3-point line. She can make a lay-up or pull-up and take a short jump shot. She has very good ball-handling skills and sometimes runs the point for me.”

Weithman’s accomplishments are that much more impressive given her medical history. Surgeries on her left knee outnumber the full basketball seasons Weithman has completed since entering high school in 2001. Her left anterior cruciate ligament — one of four strong ligaments that connect the bones of the knee joint — has gone under the knife three times, wiping out parts of her sophomore and junior seasons in high school and the last half of her freshman year at MC-Rockville.

Her most recent setback was the most difficult. She had come back from midseason injuries in 2003 and 2004 and put together a full senior season at Blake. At postseason camps, she caught the eyes of several NCAA Division II and III recruiters, who she said encouraged her to attend a junior college and prove she was healthy.

Things started well: Gasque said Weithman averaged 26 points per game over the first half of her freshman season. But 14 games in, the ACL in Weithman’s left knee blew again.

‘‘I didn’t know what was going to happen; I just thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Weithman said. ‘‘My senior year, no problems. I went through the summer, no problems. College preseason, no problems.”

Weithman’s first knee injury came in January of her sophomore year at Good Counsel, while playing a reserve role on a Falcons’ varsity team that would eventually go on to win three straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles. She tried to come back in time for the start of the following season, only to be cut by Falcons coach Tom Splain.

‘‘It just took a little longer for her to come back to full speed,” Splain said. ‘‘Speed-wise, she hadn’t gotten there yet. With her work ethic, you knew she’d come back; she just needed time. ... I’m really happy for her and for how her career turned out. She’s obviously flourishing.”

Weithman wasn’t willing to wait another full year; she just wanted to go where she could play basketball. That meant an immediate transfer to Blake, where she estimates she played in eight or nine games as a junior before her knee betrayed her again.

After her first two injuries, her ACL was repaired with tissue taken from a cadaver, because she was still growing. When the knee blew for the third time, Weithman first got a bone graft to repair damage from her previous surgeries, then had part of her own patellar tendon used to repair the ACL.

The total recovery time was about a year. Weithman sat out the 2006-07 basketball season; for part of it, she said she couldn’t leg press five pounds. But the extra time off seems to have been worth it.

‘‘I started small, but once time went on, I ended up leg pressing over 400 pounds,” she said. ‘‘There are no clicks. I feel perfectly fine. I worry about it during games, but how I think of it is, if something was going to happen, it would have happened by now.”

Weithman returned with a vengeance this winter, and the goal of playing at a four-year college is well within reach. Gasque said a number of Division II and III coaches have called to inquire about Weithman.

Just like in her junior year of high school, Weithman just wants to go where she can play basketball. At long last, she feels like herself again.

‘‘I love seeing my name right there at the top of the scoring leaders,” she said. ‘‘I’ve had coaches in the past tell me they wouldn’t think I’d be one of the girls playing college ball. When I see my name on that list, I’m looking back at going through all this, and I think it shows you what kind of player I am.”