BOISE — This biggest substitution of the season for the Boise State women’s basketball team came in the second quarter of the Broncos’ 99-68 win on Jan. 12 against San Jose State.

The Broncos led by 21 points.

With 4:58 remaining in the first half, Marijke Vanderschaaf checked in at center for the Broncos. What happened next might have well been scripted in a movie. Seeing the court for the first time in 13 months, the former starter made a jumper and a layup before coming out three minutes later. She came back in in the fourth quarter and hit another layup.

“I kind of teared up, she put so much time and effort just to get into this moment,” Boise State coach Gordy Presnell said. “Reality struck in Nevada when she bricked two free throws. But it was a great first game back for her, I was excited for her.”

If you’re only looking at the stat sheet, there’s nothing that stands out about Vanderschaaf’s 3-for-3, 6-point day over the course of 5 minutes and 26 seconds. But when you take into consideration the fact that she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to play basketball again after a serious knee injury threatened her career, those five and half minutes meant everything.

“Just to be able to put on the uniform, honestly it’s amazing just to be there because there was a point where I didn’t even know if that was going to happen,” said Vanderschaaf. “I have to keep looking back and seeing how far I have come.”

The senior is currently only allowed five minutes of action per game, and sometimes doesn’t even get that. In last Wednesday’s 75-74 win against Nevada, she got in for 57 seconds in the first half, then didn’t play in the second half due to how tight the game was. On Saturday she didn’t play against Fresno State because the Bulldogs posed matchup difficulties.

But Presnell is hopeful she can see more playing time this week as the Broncos (14-2, 5-0 Mountain West) host Air Force today and travel to Wyoming on Saturday.

“We didn’t get her in against Fresno because they play five guards and she’s not going to guard anyone on the perimeter right now,” said Presnell. ”But hopefully we can get her in, especially since Wyoming’s pretty traditional and then next week Colorado State’s very traditional. Hopefully we can get her in and she can start establishing some post play for us.”

Having to watch her minutes is a huge adjustment for Vanderschaaf, who started every game for Boise State as a sophomore when she was second on the team in both points (10.1 per game) and rebounds (6.5).

Vanderschaaf’s junior year was off to a good start as well, as she scored in double figures in four of Boise State’s first six games. But 19 seconds into the Broncos’ seventh game at home against Washington, Vanderschaaf took a charge. As she fell to the court at Taco Bell Arena, her left knee rotated.

“I think I just closed my eyes,” Vanderschaaf said. “I don’t really take charges, I was expecting her to play off of me, and when she didn’t and I went down, once I went back (assistant athletic trainer) Nicole (Denno) was like ‘hey this is serious.’ I knew it was something intense, but I didn’t quite know to the extent.”

After arriving at Boise State from Eastlake High in Sammamish, Washington, Vanderschaaf tore the ACL and meniscus in her right knee in practice, causing her to redshirt her first year on campus. But she quickly learned the present knee injury was nothing like her first.

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In addition to her ACL and meniscus, she also tore her MCL, fractured her patella and had some cartilage in her knee torn out. After undergoing surgery, her doctor told her that there was a possibility she would never play basketball again.

“That’s really hard to be told as a student-athlete,” Vanderschaaf said. “My whole life has been sports, so I was like ‘I don’t want my knees,’ but you need them when you get older.”

Making the whole ordeal even more frustrating, Vanderschaaf suffered several setbacks on her road to recovery. There were days where she would be feeling good and then the next day her knee would swell up, causing her to have to rest for a week. The pain was so constant that when she eventually found an injection that brought it down to a manageable level, she called it her “new normal.”

But all the while, she said her teammates helped keep her spirits up. Watching the Broncos win the Mountain West regular-season title and advance to the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament for a second year in a row last season certainly helped.

“She’s in there getting rehab every day,” said teammate Riley Lupfer. “For over a year she always has appointments, she’s always with Nicole doing that extra work. I felt every time ‘oh she might be able to play this game,’ but then it never happened. Then finally she’s able to play. To have that, to see what she went through, that’s love for the game. It’s pretty amazing.”

After 13 months of rehab and setbacks, she got cleared to return to action. Before the San Jose State game she received a cortisone injection to lessen the pain and swelling even further.

She came to the locker room not even knowing if she would check into the game, but that didn’t matter.

“I think it was just really exciting to have my uniform on to begin with, not really expecting to play, because in the end we needed to win the game, and that was my goal, as well,” she said. “We got to the locker room and everyone is so excited upstairs, so in our pregame talk it was ‘let’s get out there and allow Marijke to have this moment.’ That meant a lot to me to realize my team knows how hard I’ve been working and how hard I want to be there for them.”

For now, she’s limited to five minutes of action per game. That could eventually go up, but Vanderschaaf knows nothing is guaranteed. Even her doctors and trainers don’t know what her prognosis is, since there are still a lot of things that can happen in games.

She has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, so she could come back next year if she chooses. She’s already going to have to have surgery after her playing career is done to put in a bone plug to replace the cartilage that’s gone, so she hasn’t decided yet if she will take the sixth year.

All the unknowns are frustrating, Vanderschaaf admits. But compared to how bad it could have been, she thinks she’s in a pretty good situation.

“I could have not even had the opportunity to put on my uniform or to have the potential of playing, that could have just been taken away,” Vanderschaaf said. “Now whether I don’t know how many minutes or I don’t know when, I still have that potential that it’s there and it hasn’t been taken away yet. Having the potential is everything.”

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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