At this time last year Cassie Rochel wasn’t sure if she’d be able to play the game she loved again.
The Wisconsin basketball fifth-year senior was in serious pain, at times not able to walk or sit in class, with an inexplicable lower back injury doctors and trainers couldn’t even fully diagnose.
“In my mind, I never wanted to redshirt. I thought I’d miss, tops, a couple of games,” Rochel said. “But 10 games in I decided to redshirt.”
The coaching staff and the NCAA granted a medical redshirt to Rochel, who said the decision became easier after seeing the success of Taylor Wurtz, a fifth-year senior last season, who had sat out the previous season with a back injury as well.
“She was someone who was always there for me when I was out,” Rochel said of Wurtz.
However, Wurtz’s injury was operable. Rochel’s bulging lower-disk was not — doctors deemed it too risky. Plus, nobody in their low 20s was having that type of surgery. Instead, she had to deal with injections that only temporarily eased the pain.
So the pain lingered, well into the beginning of off-season conditioning, causing Rochel to not be on par with her desired fitness levels.
“I gained weight after sitting out,” Rochel said. “I couldn’t do any running in the preseason so it took me longer than the rest of the team to get back into shape.”
The 6-foot-4 center has had to change her style of play because of the injury. Her traditional post-up, back-to-the-basket technique is rarely seen anymore due to fear of receiving a defender’s arm bar to the back.
“I’m conscious of things that could reaggravate the injury,” Rochel said. “I look to get my points on the move now.”
Rochel added that while she is more agile and quicker on her feet, she lost her shot-block timing. Shot-blocking is the area in which Rochel prides herself on, averaging 1.49 blocks per game, which ranks third all-time for UW. Her 142 career blocks is also third all-time. In her junior season, she led the Big Ten in blocks per game (2.67), a mark that was 14th in the entire nation.
“Stefanie Arndt, our new trainer, did a great job of coming in after the injury and getting her back on the court,” head coach Bobbie Kelsey said.
Whatever rust Rochel had is wearing off, and whatever pain she’s playing with hasn’t inhibited her in the big moment. Against Penn State Jan. 6, she tied her career-high with seven blocks in one game, which also tied the Kohl Center record, a mark she had previously set. In a matchup at Florida, Rochel scored 14 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 51-48 win, while scoring off an offensive rebound with five seconds remaining.
Rochel feels that in the time since her injury, her biggest improvements weren’t physical; rather, it was her mentality.
“A little over a year ago I was in the worst spot,” Rochel said of her outlook during the injury. “I was really down. I was supposed to be out there leading. I was on the bench and not standing up a lot during practice.”
“Mentally, I’ve come a long way.”
She attributes her positivity to her teammates and coaches, but especially her mother.
“My mom really brought me back,” Rochel said. “There are so many other situations I am thankful to not be in. I’m thankful because of the opportunity to be in basketball.”
The time spent on the bench allowed Rochel to learn the game from a different angle. Aside from her newfound knowledge of the x’s and o’s, she developed a new appreciation for the game.
“It was nice to be a spectator and sit and watch games. You realize things you don’t see [on the court],” Rochel said. “But I’m very blessed and thankful. I developed a newfound love of the game, because you miss it and you want it.”
Sometimes the pain and discomfort comes back. When Kelsey has the team huddled for an extended period of time during practice, Rochel will have to walk away and stretch to keep her back from stiffening up.
“Rehab and rest and managing my minutes is really important,” Rochel said. “The coaches are really smart with that, and as much as it sucks to not play during practice sometimes, you have to play for the games.”
As the season has progressed, Kelsey no longer emphasizes managing Rochel’s game minutes.
“Now it’s up to her to manage when she’s tightening up to step out of the drills,” Kelsey said. “She does a good job of that.”
Now, one year removed from cringing pain and the uncertainty of her basketball career, the Lakeville, Minnesota, native has a clear vision for her future. It’s a vision that includes playing more basketball, most likely overseas, hopefully pain-free.
“It speaks volumes for her, her competitiveness, her desire and her passion for the game,” Kelsey said when asked about Rochel’s comeback. “I don’t even know what to say about it, for her to be playing as much as she is, and a year ago she could hardly walk.
“Credit the trainer. God and the trainer.”
For someone who tries not to take things seriously (she describes herself as “goofy”) Rochel wants to leave a legacy of someone who defended the basket and a leader.
Defending with her back to the basket, Cassie Rochel is back at it.