HARRISONBURG — There was less than a minute remaining in the game.
Maddie Shifflett was in transition and as she went in for a layup, a Randolph-Macon player went up to block her, forcing Shifflett’s knee to buckle as she came back down.
“Initially, I was really freaked out and scared because I felt a big pop in my knee and it was kind of like my whole knee shifted,” Shifflett said. “I knew it was pretty serious.”
Shifflett, a 2017 East Rockingham graduate and sophomore at Mary Washington at the time, said she remembered lying on the floor with her coaches and teammates standing around her.
As two teammates helped her off the court, she realized her season was over.
“It was extremely frustrating, especially since we were only seven games in when I got hurt,” Shifflett said. “We had just got through all the summer and preseason workouts and I got injured during the best part of the year.”
Prior to her injury, Shifflett had emerged as a prolific scorer for UMW, averaging 11.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 assist per game while shooting 44.9 percent from the field.
During her freshman year, she started in 22 of 27 games and averaged 6.9 points, 3.5 boards and 0.6 assists while shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range.
“The season was off to a great start for me and so it was really hard to get hurt that early in the year,” Shifflett said.
During her time at East Rockingham, despite her “quiet” demeanor off the court, Eagles coach Paul Comer praised Shifflett for her ability to remain poised in any situation.
She left the school with over 1,000 career points and is regarded as one of the best players to come through the highly-touted East Rock program’s history.
“She was a great leader who kids naturally gravitated to by the way she led by example,” Comer said. “She had some huge games in some big wins during her career. She was just a special player.”
Shifflett, a two-year captain at ERHS, joined Bridgewater alum and former Division III All-American Jessica Lam, Concord graduate Meghan Nicholson and current Eastern Mennonite University standout Lexi Dean on the list of accomplished former East Rock athletes.
“We’ve been blessed to have some very coachable kids who have the ability and desire to compete at the next level,” Comer said “It’s always special to watch them grow as players and people. … We would like to think that our program is preparing kids to compete in college.”
The adjustment from the high school game to college wasn’t as easy as it looked, however, Shifflett said.
She said the level of competition was obviously higher, the shot clock took some adjusting and there were much more specific defensive rotations she had to learn.
“The main thing was that I needed to learn to play my own game at a stronger and faster pace,” Shifflett said. “I had to create a lot of shots coming off screens and plays because there isn’t as much time to get a shot off at the college level.”
Shifflett found success early and Comer said that’s likely due to her work ethic.
The former East Rock standout said she considers her a “lead-by-example” player and tries to stay level headed through all of the difficult challenges throughout a game and season.
“I keep my composure even when the game gets heated or intense and try to encourage my teammates always,” Shifflett said. “I always try to keep the energy up.”
That composure has been put to the test during her current rehab process.
Shifflett said it’s been both slow and frustrating, but said since having surgery in January — the injury occurred in December of 2018 — she is finally feeling like her old self.
She’s been doing physical therapy three times per week and said she “essentially had to learn how to walk again.”
“It was definitely harder than any other injury I’ve had to recover from,” Shifflett said. “The process was like a roller coaster, for sure. I had really good days and then also some really bad days, so I just had to take it one day at a time in the beginning and just push through the pain and frustration.”
Comer said he stays in touch regularly with Shifflett and while the two often talk basketball, they also talk about life in general.
Before Shifflett’s injury, the ERHS coach was planning a trip with other former players to go up and catch one of Mary Washington’s games this past season.
“There is always a special bond between coaches and their players,” Comer said. “I hope, in some way, the lessons on tenacity and perseverance have helped her with her rehab and coming back from her injury.”
Because the injury occurred so early in the season, Shifflett was able to take a redshirt, and she’ll still be considered a sophomore when she returns to the court this season.
She said the biggest hurdle for her to overcome then will be the mental aspect and understanding that her knee is actually stronger than it was before.
Once she builds that trust, however, and gets that image of the final minute of last year’s contest against Randolph-Macon out of her head, she said she’ll be back to the player she was.
“I am super determined,” Shifflett said. “I want to be playing the same basketball I was playing before I got hurt.”