By Hector Longo
---- — LAWRENCE – As demanding as Sue Downer’s basketball practices can be, Caitlin Dell’Orfano found a fate much worse.
“Sitting on the bench and watching is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” said the Central Catholic junior, who helps lead the unbeaten (4-0) Raiders into Friday night’s must-see Christmas Tournament semifinal vs. Andover (5:30 p.m.) at North Andover High School.
“You’ll never, ever hear me complaining about basketball practice again.”
Less than a full 12 months since a torn ACL in the right knee sent her to that unaccustomed spot in street clothes, Dell’Orfano declares the injury as history and herself, “new and improved.”
“I think I’m stronger than I was before, more aggressive, not as timid as I was,” said Dell’Orfano, one of five starters back from the Raiders’ North semifinalists a year ago.
“I think I’ve realized how special it is to be able to play every day. I saw how it could be taken away.”
About the only thing to slow down Dell’Orfano so far has been the competition, or at least a lack of it. With minutes limited by Raider blowouts (Central has won its four by 40.0 points a game), the junior averages 5.8 per night in the early going.
Of course, considering where she thought she was as she tumbled on that fateful night last January against Methuen, Dell’Orfano can hardly wrangle in the excitement of the young season.
“I felt like I was really starting to come into my own, doing really well last year,” said Dell’Orfano, who had been averaging 7.5 points a game when the injury happened. “I was going up for a jumper, and just landed wrong. The knee buckled, I fell on it wrong, and I could tell it was bad. I hoped for the best, but ...”
Three of the most devastating letters an athlete can hear -- ACL -- sent Dell’Orfano to tears.
“When I first found out, I thought I’d never be able to play again. I couldn’t be controlled in the doctor’s office,” she said. “I thought my life was over, I thought basketball was over.”
But medicine has made huge strides on the knee joint. And two months after the surgery, Dell’Orfano was up and firing again.
“I was back in the gym, lifting, in a brace, shooting around,” said Dell’Orfano, who relied heavily on her teammates and coaches as motivators to get back.
“Therapy took over AAU season, and I came back at five and a half months. I’m completely fine.”
While the rapid nature of the recovery surprised even Downer, the coach was hardly stunned by Dell’Orfano’s voraciousness in recovery.
“She’s worked incredibly hard, but that’s Caitlin,” said Downer.
“She’s very determined, working hard. To look at her now, I don’t know you’d see anything drastically different about her game. She’s just a very determined young lady.”
Dell’Orfano and the Raiders haven’t had much Christmas tourney luck recently, as Andover has been the dominant force in the region and state.
But she’s hoping this time around that things have begun to swing back Central’s way. Tomorrow night’s semifinal might be a first step.
“This is our year. If we play as a team, play our game, we have a shot at anything we want to accomplish,” she said. “We’re definitely looking forward to Friday. It’s going to be exciting, and I can’t wait to see what happens.”
GREATER LAWRENCE GIRLS CHRISTMAS TOURNAMENT At North Andover High School Tomorrow's Schedule Consolations Lawrence vs. Lowell, 2 p.m.; Pinkerton vs. Methuen, 3:45 Semifinals Andover vs. Central Catholic, 5:30 p.m.; North Andover vs. Salem, 7:15 p.m.