By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Creighton senior Rachael Saunders has been called a lot of things during her basketball career going all the way back to West High School days: Pesky, scrappy, tough-minded, maybe even annoying if you’re the opponent.
“Rachael plays a lot like her dad, and her dad (Mike) was a football player, so her freshman year I had to talk her out of fouling quite as much, but I’m proud of Rachael because I think she’s overcome a lot,” Bluejays coach Jim Flanery said. “She’s had a lot of knee issues.”
Saunders and her Creighton team are in Iowa City to play a first-round NCAA tournament game against Colorado at Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 12:30 p.m. Friday. The winner of that game faces the winner of the Iowa-Illinois State game on Sunday.
A player who always looked indestructible no matter what sport she was playing at West, Saunders has had her share of bad luck in college.
“Last year was a really frustrating year for her,” Flanery said. “She hurt her knee mid-December, and her timetable for return was supposed to be three to four months. She just had complication after complication, and she really wasn’t cleared to play until the beginning of November even to start practice. And yet, here she is, and she’s a big part of our team.”
“You know, it was definitely a process,” Saunders said. “In January of last year I was actually here having my surgery from Dr. Wolf, who you guys might know is the (Iowa) team doc here, a great family friend, and he put me in a great position going forward.
“But I spent most of the spring and the summer at Creighton getting back to on the court and in the weight room trying to get back to the game. But being outside of actually playing on the court for any amount of time is very hard to get back into the swing of things. (My teammates) have been very patient with me as well as my coaches, you know, being comfortable again, getting up and down the court naturally again.”
Saunders is perpetual motion on the court, so sitting still and waiting isn’t in her DNA. Even though she might have been a bit of an unknown quantity coming back this season she is one of the team captains.
“We can count on her to provide us tremendous defensive versatility, for one, and I think she’s become a capable offensive player, somebody that our team respects because of who she is and how she carries herself and how much she’s overcome,” Flanery said. “She’s our student-athlete advisory committee rep and is on a national committee, so she’s kind of the total package.”
This season she comes off the bench but is averaging 20 minutes of playing time. She’s averaging 5.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and has 27 steals. Coming back to play in her hometown is special.
“I was very excited at first just to see our name pop up (in the NCAA brackets),” she said. “I didn’t even notice which region we were in at first, and then I think one of my coaches tapped me on the back and said, “Look where we are,” and I just had this feeling of, like, complete joy and also just excitement.”
Basketball is a long season, but it was even longer for Saunders with the difficult recovery and the uncertainty of whether she could help her team. Then again, she’s matured along the way, and that’s helped.
“I think that my mindset is a lot better than I was going in (as a freshman),” she said. “I still have the same energy and the same kind of hype and yelling that I had even when I was a senior at Iowa City West, but I definitely think that my coaches have helped me kind of channel that into a more calm confidence on the court.
“My teammates have helped me grow incredibly, and they’ve been along with me as I’ve kind of taken those steps both physically and mentally, so I think that I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been able to kind of take the game more slowly and look at it in a big picture perspective rather than getting so high and so low in different moments.
“It’s been tough, but at the end of the day I know I’m here with my team, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a process that I know made me stronger. It helped give me some perspective as well, and ultimately, I’m very thankful to be here more than anything.”