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Sean Lynch: Willison can't wait to rejoin Merced College women's hoops

Sean Lynch
Sean Lynch Sean Lynch

Some inadvertent contact with a teammate during practice caused Ashley Willison to favor her reconstructed knee.

The Merced College redshirt sophomore attempted to limp it off -- all the while trying not to catch the eye of Lady Devils coach Allen Huddleston.

No luck.

"Are you all right?" Huddleston asked while Willison wipes away what could be sweat from her eye.

With her back to her coach, Willison just nodded and practice continued.

Huddleston couldn't help but laugh at the scene.

"She's so tough," Huddleston said. "She'd never tell you if her knee was bothering her."

That determination is something Huddleston is grateful to have back in his lineup after Willison spent last year rehabbing from a torn ACL and meniscus.

It's also something the MC coach watches very closely.

"It's very tough and she gets extremely upset with me in games when I sit her down," Huddleston said.

"Sometimes I'm probably a little overprotective, but I tell her I want to see her last the entire season."

Coming back from knee injuries is becoming old hat for Huddleston and the Lady Devils.

A season ago it was Fantasia Newsome battling back.

This season, Willison is joined by Keyona McKibbens.

"I was around a lot last year, so seeing Fantasia come back has helped me a lot," Willison admitted. "Not only was she able to come back and play, she went on to play at another school.

"That's what I'm looking to do."

There's no doubt Willison has the skills to do just that.

As a true freshman two years ago, the sharp-shooter led MC's state-tournament qualifying team with 46 3-pointers.

Recapturing that form, however, has proven difficult.

"I was real timid with my shot to start the season," Willison said. "It was a lot of stuff all at the same time.

"I had to get back in shape. I had to learn to trust me knee. And I had to find my shot again.

"I think right now we've been struggling to play as a team, so I've been looking to get everyone involved.

"I know I need to start looking to shoot more, though."

Through 13 games, Willison is tied for second on the Lady Devils with seven 3-pointers, but she's only attempted 25.

It's a number Huddleston wants to see increase

Exponentially.

"I've chewed her out a couple times because she hasn't been looking for her shot," Huddleston said. "I basically told her I shouldn't have to tell her to shoot.

"It's important for a shooter to have a swagger, but it's not an easy thing to get back.

"Especially at this level, because there are so many talented guards that are working hard to deny you.

"You just have to go out and start firing."

Willison is working on it.

Along with McKibbens, the shooting guard is in the gym putting up 200 shots a day outside of practice.

"Getting in the gym with Keyona has helped a lot," Willison said. "We sat out together last year and we've really pushed each other.

"She's a great shooter too, so it really allows us to critique each other."

Willison can see progress being made, but the toughest part of her road back is staying patient.

"I know it's just going to be a little bit at a time," Willison said. "Sometimes, though, I'm frustrated when I can't do it all right away.

"Some things, I just have to accept, I'll never be able to do the same again."

Willison's defensive approach is on that list.

While Huddleston thinks defense is the area she's made the biggest strides in her recovery, Willison sees things slightly differently.

"All throughout high school and my freshman year, defense is what I really prided myself on," Willison said. "Now, I can't get up in people's faces the way I used to.

"My lateral movement isn't what it used to be and I've lost a little quickness.

"It's frustrating, but all you can do is adjust your game and try to compensate for it."

Whatever frustrations Willison is feeling, Huddleston said she's never allowed it to affect her work ethic.

The Lady Devil captain isn't much of a speech maker, but can always be counted on to set the example for the rest of her team.

Huddleston knows it's just a matter of time before that constant dedication begins to pay off.

"Once she starts knocking down her shots again, this team could take off," Huddleston said. "If we get that outside game to complement our inside players, we could be a very dangerous team."

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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