When Western Washington University women’s basketball player Kayla Bernsen went down with an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) tear in her left knee at the Spokane Hoopfest in June 2013, the 6-foot-3 center likely could have chosen to quit basketball, to waive the rigorous rehab process and opt to finish out her college career as just a student.
That was never an option though, Bernsen said in a phone interview. She had too much love for the game and had come too far to let an injury just months before her junior season stop her.
Plus, Bernsen had the support of her WWU family and yes, it is definitely a family, Bernsen said.
“I’ve just had the incredible support from teammates and coaches,” Bernsen said. “Never for a second did I think I wasn’t part of the team.”
Bernsen took a redshirt for her junior year in the 2013-14 season to go through the rehab process.
Oftentimes, when an athlete goes down with an injury and gets redshirted, they check out of it mentally for a season, Bernsen said. They can’t travel with the team and part of that team atmosphere goes out the window.
That wasn’t the issue for Bernsen.
“I stayed in it really positively,” Bernsen said. “It ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. It helped me more as a teammate. I’ve gotten smarter and have a great sense of motivation.”
Now, she returns stronger mentally than ever before and that’s huge for WWU. She’s the tallest player in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and is hoping to continue what’s seemingly a WWU women’s basketball tradition of having strong center leaders.
Britt Harris was a star two seasons ago, leading the Vikings to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, before Sarah Hill’s paced WWU last year.
Bernsen feels some pressure, not from other but from herself, to fill those shoes, but she believes she’s more than capable of handling it.
“It’s so exciting for me. I love that kind of expectation,” Bernsen said. “I think I’m confident in my abilites and my team’s ability.”
Her teammates are confident in her too. Senior forward Sydney Donaldson has seen Bernsen progress through her career and has seen how motivated she is to get back to the court.
“Kayla’s looking great. She’s more determined than I’ve ever seen her,” Donaldson said in a phone interview. “Kayla’s good on the block. She has nice hands around the rim and uses her size well.”
Those skills will help in a season that has high expectations for WWU. The Vikings return four seniors from last year’s Elite Eight run and only lose Sarah Hill, a player Bernsen says she thinks of anytime she needs to get pumped up, from the starting rotation.
The Vikings know the experience they bring to the table and are setting goals to get back to the Elite Eight, if not contend for a national championship. WWU is ranked No. 21 in the USA Today Sports Preseason Top 25 Women's Basketball Coaches' Poll released Tuesday, Nov. 4.
“Our expectations are high,” Donaldson said. “Only we can hold ourselves back.”
Bernsen will play a vital role in meeting those expectations and giving her friends and roommates and senior teammates Donaldson, Jenni White and Katie Colard a great final year.
The hardest part for Bernsen will be knowing that next year she won’t get to play with those she’s grown closest to. Because of the redshirt season, Bernsen now has an extra year with WWU.
“I know it’ll be hard at the end of season and they’re all gone. They’re my best friends,” Bernsen said. “Still, I’m grateful I have another year.”
For now, Bernsen is fired up to get back to the court and despite a few hiccups in her rehab she is feeling healthy. She has a couple exhibition games already under her belt but nothing is quite the same as taking the court when it matters.
“It’s the most exciting thing in the world for me,” Bernsen said. “The community is great and it’s awesome to have people tell me how excited they are to have me back. But just being able to practice with my team has meant a lot to me. I’ve gotten the chance to be with them at practice. Now, I’m excited to go show everyone else.”