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James Burns: Just how do ladies avoid trip to 'ACL hell'?

James Burns

If only Danny Crosby could turn back the hands of time, maybe...

Just maybe the Le Grand girls basketball coach might have done things a little differently.

Maybe he would have set aside the playbook and pushed his kids to stretch a little longer or work with weights a little more.

Maybe he would have had them all wear some sort of knee brace, you know, for precautionary reasons.

And maybe -- just maybe -- he could have helped save Aracely Vega's knee.

Vega, one of the area's best shooters, underwent reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL in her left knee on Dec. 26.

It was the second such surgery on that knee in four years.

Crosby said doctors recommended that Vega, now a freshman at Merced College, stop playing basketball.

Not exactly happy news at Christmas time.

"She loves the game so much," Crosby said. "Her biggest goal was to play at the college level, and to finally get there and not get in your first game...

"It hurt her a lot."

She isn't alone in ACL hell.

The Sun-Star's three-part series on ACL injuries last week revealed that they've become a fixed part of our sports culture -- almost as much as the games themselves.

Locally, knee injuries had a devastating affect on several of our brightest stars.

But mostly girls.

"It's so serious with girls," Crosby said. "The numbers are so high, especially around here. You've got Aracely, you've got Mercedes Lee and Deja Mann at Merced, and you've got Fantasia Newsome over at (Merced College).

"I'm sure there are more girls out there, probably wearing a brace with a banged up knee, waiting for that tear to finally happen."

Statistics show that it will occur eventually.

Not to all female athletes, of course, but enough to make coaches and trainers wonder about prevention.

For every five sports injuries involving the ACL, four will belong to females.

So what can we do about it?

How can we curb the rate of serious knee injuries among our female athletes, especially now that there are more than ever on our soccer fields and basketball courts?

The answer isn't as simple as building a sleeve that protects the knee.

"That's been tried already," Dr. Sam Tacke of the Merced Orthopaedic Medical Group said. "Several times, in fact, and it doesn't work.

"I don't think there will ever be a simple brace or change in shoes that will keep an ACL from tearing.

"It's all about conditioning and training."

The Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Group has come up with a 15-minute training session geared to protect the ACL -- the most important of four ligaments connecting the bones of the knee joint.

The exercises, mostly plyometrics, stretching and agility drills, could fit seamlessly into day-to-day workouts -- replacing part of the usual warm-up drill.

Wonderful.

Wait, there's just one catch.

It took us a week's worth of research to finally access the information, and even now, we're still thumbing through the "How to..." manuals.

So we couldn't possibly expect coaches, whose time is often monopolized by gym schedules, work, family and the rush of games, to have the know-how or time to access and implement these tools.

That's just silly.

And dangerous to assume.

Instead, the Sac-Joaquin Section -- a longtime advocate of women in sports -- and athletic directors should champion the cause.

Make it part of the job description when coaches apply for positions, particularly those in girls sports.

There should be information posted on the section Web site, complete with other links, and literature passed down through the ranks before the start of each season.

Simply put: Coaches should be thinking of their players' health long before they draw up their first play.

"I don't see why a coach would be against that," Crosby said. "If they're hurt, they can't play for you anyway.

"I'd give it a try."

Why not?

James Burns is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2417 or via e-mail at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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