John Noonan has guided Ursuline basketball to four Delaware championships over the past decade in his role as a coach, but it’s been his day job which has been paying dividends for two of his players this season.
Forwards Olivia Mason and Kay Wulah each suffered anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in a knee, requiring them to sit out for most of the previous season, as the Raiders slipped to a 9-10 record.
While many coaches might have hustled the two Division I prospects back on the court, Noonan also worked at ATI Physical Therapy in Pike Creek, so he had the perfect background to deal with an injury that has become all-too-common in women’s sports in recent years.
Wulah injured her right knee around August 2016, but was in a “coper” status, meaning she was able to continue playing last season, before electing to have the surgery in April 2017. She started her rehab with ATI’s Wilmington office under the direction of Dr. Eric Abramowitz, as she looked to regain stability in her legs.
Mason, who signed a letter of intent to play at Division I Niagara next year, suffered the same injury to her left knee, and needed the surgery done on a tighter time-frame. This meant that Coach Noonan suddenly had two key starters missing from a line-up that already had a hole with the transfer of 1st Team All-State guard Alisha Lewis to a school on Long Island.
It also put Noonan in the unusual position of going from their coach, to their physical therapist.
Mason already used Noonan’s Pike Creek office, and soon after it was clear Mason was going to be going through the rehab with him, Wulah’s family made the decision to switch her to Noonan’s location.
“After that, we started working together,” Wulah noted. “And that’s when I started to feel the bond, and the connection, and the teamwork that we both have, and it felt so great to be with my teammate again.”
Coach Noonan said the pairing of them wasn’t an accident.
“That was strategic on our part. We felt like if they were in the gym together they could push each other. Misery loves company, and they were both miserable,” he said. “They both were struggling, and they both were behind on their rehab. They both had about the same deficit. They were at about 30% and they stayed there, and it was quite frustrating. Kay was ahead, then Olivia turned the corner, and they both hit the mark about the same corner, it’s a grind, it’s a tough rehab.”
Noonan, who has worked with top Delaware athletes such as Elena Delle Donne and former NFL tight end Justin Perillo, called this a unique opportunity to combine coaching moments with training.
“It was fun to watch, because Olivia had already been at that clinic and was more familiar with the equipment, and she took Kay under her wing and was like ‘Hey do this, Hey do that. This is how I’m going that exercise.’ It was a peer teaching, it was giving each other a voice, and they challenged each other.”
While the front-court duo was fighting to get back on the floor, the basketball season wasn’t going to wait for them, and Ursuline’s absences were beginning to take their toll.
Playing their typically intense national schedule, Ursuline got off to a 4-6 start, including a four-game losing streak that featured a 53-47 loss at Caravel.
They were playing tough teams, but with guard Maggie Connolly being the sole focus-point of virtually every opponent, she was giving her teammates opportunities they hadn’t experienced before to step up, but it wasn’t always working out as planned. A loss to arch-rival Saint Elizabeth followed on January 10, dropping their record to 5-7.
Meanwhile, Wulah and Mason continued their rehabs, sitting on the bench at games, itching to get back on the floor. Noonan knew getting them back on the floor would be the key to any post-season success.
“We felt better about ourselves and our chances, because rebounding has been a problem, post defense has been a problem, scoring around the basket has been a problem. Those two make us so much better.”
Then, on a Thursday night at Saint Mark’s, things turned.
Wulah and Noonan were both cleared by Dr. Joseph Mesa, and entered into a program where they would be allowed to play up to two minutes in each quarter.
Noonan spread out that time so they weren’t on the floor at the same time, but Connolly noticed the reaction immediately.
“Just having both of them there, two bigs that are capable of passing and scoring, and they play together wonderfully. Me being able to go off a ball screen knowing I have two talented posts I can hit either one, and something good will happen is huge.”
Mason and Wulah each scored two points that night in a 58-34 victory, but the outcome was less important that the knowledge their two forwards were on their way back. Wulah recalled it still not being totally back to normal.
“My legs were so wiggly, and I didn’t know how to run, and jump, and shoot. It was all kind of new, like I was learning how to walk again.”
Noonan continued to show the patience of his 26 years of experience, and steadily things continued to help them improve, even if they weren’t getting a full chance to show it in games.
“Each day in practice, they’ve been getting better and better. Just watching them run up and down the floor, they are gliding instead of hobbling. Because of the way they were moving and practicing, the other kids gained confidence.”
Mason and Wulah continued to play limited minutes, but they still helped the Raiders jump out to a 22-19 lead at Conrad, but it didn’t last in a 73-62 loss to slip to 7-9 with three games remaining in the regular season. Anything short of a sweep of Saint Elizabeth, Saint Mark’s, and Sanford would mean a losing season, but due to their schedule, a post-season trip was already guaranteed.
Ursuline earned their revenge against Saint Elizabeth, and then finished a sweep of Saint Mark’s, leaving the February 14 season finale against Sanford, a rival in so many big games in the state tournament. Both Mason and Wulah were feeling sore that day, leaving Noonan with a decision: Continue to play the two forwards in a game that only meant something for seeding purposes, or go with the short-handed line-up and see what happens.
They sat, and it was a tough evening for the Raiders, who fell 59-38. Mason and Wulah watched Sanford center Samantha Pollich score 17 points against less-experienced resistance. Mason said it was tough to watch at times, even as she tried to boost the confidence of her teammates.
“It was definitely annoying, because I wanted to be out there. But I know that our team was going to do all that they could.”
They couldn’t salvage a winning regular season, but they did ultimately claim the No. 7 seed, and a first-round bye. There would be 16 days between the Sanford game and the tournament opener at home against Padua, a team they had defeated 64-43 and 63-48 during the Catholic Conference campaign.
The 2-minute rule still applied despite the layoff, although they combined for 11 points anyway in a 46-26 victory. That let them finally focus on the quarterfinals, where none other than Sanford awaited.
It was time to drop the rule, and let the duo play.
Wulah’s confidence, or perhaps nerves, were such that before Sunday’s game, she actually went to the YMCA to do some last-minute touches on her game, when she ran into Simeon Hahn, the father of former teammate Adrianna, now a standout at Villanova. He told her to go out there and play well.
On Sunday, 2:30 p.m. hit, and Kay and Olivia’s names were introduced in Ursuline’s starting lineup. If they felt well, they were definitely going to play more than eight minutes each.
Mason and Wulah set the tone for Ursuline early, scoring their team’s first 6 points, and 11 of the 14 points in the quarter as Ursuline led 14-11. Connolly had four assists, but her point scoring wasn’t required, yet. Ursuline was beginning to look like the three-time defending champion.
Things settled down into typical Sanford vs. Ursuline fashion. Quality offense, limited turnovers, and tough but respectful play.
Sanford used a 7-0 run late in the third quarter to go up by 9 points, only to have Connolly, who had struggled to find open space without Mason and Wulah in the first meeting, bury a three-pointer to make it a 45-39 game going into the final eight minutes.
Abigail Rzucidlo was one of the players taking more valuable shots when the team was short-handed, and it paid off in spades in the final quarter, as she hit a pair of three-pointers, the second of which tied the game at 47-47 with 1:25, off a feed from Connolly.
Following a Sanford free throw, it was the other guard, Alli Olmstead, who hit Ursuline’s biggest shot to date, a baseline mid-range jumper with 30 seconds left to put Ursuline ahead for the first time since early in the 3rd quarter.
Wulah would actually commit a foul in the final seconds, but Sanford missed the free throws, and they were able to escape in a championship-style celebration 51-48. The team Ursuline wanted to field at the beginning of the year was back, and they were dangerous. She finished with 10 points and 6 rebounds in 30 minutes, and had a big smile on her face when asked how she feels now. “Now it feels like I can do anything, I can do moves I didn’t think 11 months ago I could do again.”
For Mason’s part, she scored 14 points with 5 rebounds, and she was grateful for all of the support throughout the season.
“I have a lot more confidence in my legs. It’s a lot less shaky than it was. Just having everyone else on the team, they helped out.”
There’s still some questions left to be answered.
Mason and Wulah are still in knee braces as they wrap up their rehabs, and after playing a combined 58 out of 64 potential minutes on Sunday, how will they feel going into another tough match-up with No. 3 Conrad on Wednesday night.
While they might not be able to answer that until game time, what Wulah feels towards Noonan is unquestioned.
“I know he wants the best for us. Whenever I wanted to get out there, I would be like ‘it’s been 11 months, I’m ready, I just want to be out there.’ He was like ‘hey, slow down, you’ll have your moment.’ He wanted to make sure I was completely cleared, and that’s why I love that man so much. He was always there for me, so it was amazing to have him by my side.”
Olivia and Kay had a beautiful moment at the Bob last weekend, they just hope two more moments await this weekend, as they hope to claim their school’s fourth straight title.
For Noonan, helping athletes is just a part of his job, but even as the winning coach, he still took time to remember his personal training roots.
He found Sanford center Allie Kubek, who is beginning her own journey after a knee injury derailed a season that was looking great. She had held a 6’4” University of Arizona recruit in check, while collecting 16 rebounds, in a win over St. Anthony (California) at the Diamond State Classic in December.
“I talked to Allie and I said ‘hang in there, kid, it’s going to be a long road, but you’re going to get back and you’re going to do great things.” Because she’s a great player, but it’s tough rehab, it really is.”
Olivia Mason and Kay Wulah know the path Allie is taking, but they know they only found the end through Coach Noonan’s help, and each other.
“Just having her with me, I knew that she would make me better,” said Wulah. “And this game was going to be amazing.”
Ursuline fans are undoubtedly thrilled, but Delaware high school basketball fans should also be glad to have Olivia Mason and Kay Wulah back in the fold. The tournament is better with them on the court.