CHEROKEE, Iowa | Friendship formed through basketball continues off the court this season as Dacey Nelson and Payton Slaughter fight back from knee injuries.
Nelson, a junior all-stater at Oakland-Craig High School, blew out her left knee during an AAU game on July 24. She had surgery two weeks later.
Slaughter, a junior all-stater at Cherokee's Washington High School, blew out her left knee during a basketball scrimmage in Le Mars, Iowa, on Nov. 11. She underwent surgery eight days ago.
Nelson left her home and drove 2.5 hours to Cherokee on Sunday to bring gifts and comfort as her former club-basketball teammate reclined in recovery.
"My parents let me drive to Cherokee on Sunday, even though I missed church," Nelson said.
To which I responded: "You comforted the afflicted."
Nelson and Slaughter are part of a group of a few Siouxland players, all of them friends, who have been afflicted by nasty tears of an anterior cruciate ligament during basketball in recent months. They've reached out to offer comfort in the wake of an injury whose road to recovery spans six months to more than a year.
"I'm five months ahead of Payton, so I know what she's going through," said Nelson, daughter of Dannika and Merritt Nelson, of Oakland, Nebraska.
Nelson executed a jump-stop in the lane during a game on July 24 in Minneapolis, a move she's made thousands of times. This time, her knee gave out and she went down writhing in pain. Slaughter and her father, Brandon Slaughter, assistant coach at Cherokee, who had been watching the game, bounded out on the court to offer aid.
The next day a doctor confirmed her fear: Torn ACL. Surgery on Aug. 3 revealed more damage, including three tears of the meniscus, a torn medial collateral ligament, a sprained posterior cruciate ligament and three cartilage tears.
"Initially, I thought I'd be back (playing) in six to eight months," said Nelson, who scored 23 points per game last season. "But when all of that other damage showed up, they pushed the timetable back to 10 to 12 months."
Nelson fought through pain and sleepless nights early in her recovery. She had trouble keeping food down and lost 30 pounds in five weeks. Emotionally? She felt awful.
"I am a leader in basketball and was getting lots of college looks and then in one second it all comes crashing down," she said.
Nelson kept working through physical therapy and climbed back to a new normal, if that makes sense, as her stomach calmed and her appetite returned. Her next blow? Finding out Slaughter tore her ACL. Her father asked her not to reach out to Slaughter until they knew for sure. Dacey texted her friend anyway.
"The Slaughters had sent me a letter and some stuff when I was going through it," she said. "I just wanted to let her know I was thinking of her and would help in any way I could."
Payton Slaughter, daughter of Brandon and Wendy Slaughter, said she simply ran to meet the basketball on the third play of a scrimmage against West High. Her left foot hit the floor and her knee bent backwards.
"I felt like I hyper-extended it," she said. "But I also felt it pop. I hobbled off the court and tried to put weight on it, but I couldn't."
An MRI revealed a torn ACL. Surgery took place last week at CNOS in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota.
"Doctor (Ryan) Meis said it was my ACL," Slaughter said. "He also said he saw a partial tear in my meniscus (from her freshman year), but it had healed itself. Everything else looked great."
Slaughter didn't eat for three days as pain medication affected her stomach. She stayed home and kept her leg elevated as her teammates began their second week of practice. And then Nelson called to ask if Slaughter would be up for a visit over the Thanksgiving weekend.
"Dacey had sent me a really nice text after I got hurt," Slaughter said. "We kept talking back and forth."
Nelson left Oakland and stopped at Target in Sioux City on her way to Cherokee. She bought Slaughter a blanket, socks, bath supplies (since she can't shower until her stitches are removed), Sprite and paints."
"I got the Sprite because that's the only thing Payton could keep down," Nelson said. "I bought paints because Payton likes to paint. I like to write and writing is something that helped me through my recovery."
"It was awesome she came to visit me," Slaughter said. "We talked for hours about how our surgeries went and our feelings. It's so nice to have someone who completely understands what you're going through."
The healing continued as Slaughter on Tuesday communicated with a couple of other former club-basketball teammates who have faced ACL rehab: Sidney Steffen, a junior at Woodbury Central High School, and Taylor Rodenburgh, a senior at West Sioux High School, who is headed to Morningside College next August.
"It's nice to know other people understand," said Slaughter, whose Cherokee team moved to 1-0 on the season on Monday with their junior point guard calling out-of-bounds plays from her position immediately behind the bench, left leg elevated for the time being.
"I'll return to school next week," Slaughter continued. "They've told me that I'll be out of competition for six to seven months."
Nelson and Slaughter vow to help their teams in any way possible this year before returning to the court for their senior season 12 months from now. After that? Both eye the chance to make a major contribution to a collegiate basketball program. Both, after all, have been sought by college coaches all across the Midwest.
And while this season represents a bummer for a pair of prep stars, they're thankful for the places their talent, work ethic, teammates, parents and coaches have taken them, both on the court and off.
Said Nelson: "If you'd go back in time and tell us as second-graders that we'd make so many friends and see so many places while being invested in basketball and be known across the state, but we'd have to sit out our junior year? We'd take it. We love the relationships, the travel, the people we've met and all the great experiences we've had."
And will continue to have.