Aug. 2, 1999
By Tom Kolbe
As Niele Ivey prepares for her senior season, the 5-8 guard knows she has a lot to overcome. Yet, despite the hurdles, she vows she will not be deterred.
Last March against Rutgers in the semifinals of the BIG EAST tournament, the unthinkable happened to the St. Louis, Mo., native when for the second time in her career she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Ivey remembers the moment and the pain she felt in her left knee that night as well. It brought back so many memories of her freshman year which were haunting. That season, 1996-97, five games into her inaugural campaign, she tore her ACL in her right knee.
This time, however, the injury was more damaging because it occurred in the postseason, just as she and her team were playing their best ball of the season and gearing up for the NCAA tournament. The injury occurred with 14 minutes remaining in the contest against the Scarlet Knights with the Irish well on their way to earning a berth in the championship game for the third time in four seasons against Connecticut. Up to the injury, Ivey had scored 16 points, dished off six assists and recorded five rebounds and five steals.
Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey watch the 1998-99 season come to a close.
Ivey's absence certainly had an impact on her squad as the Irish bowed to LSU in the second round of the tournament. Faced with the frustration and pain of surgery and rehabilitation, the senior leader understood the sacrifices and hard work she would have to endure for a successful comeback during the offseason.
"It's been pretty much the same as it was my freshman year," Ivey says. "The left knee is coming along a little faster than when I tore the ACL in my right knee. Right now, I'm still going through the strengthening process.
"When it happened, I just couldn't believe it. What made it even more frustrating is that I knew the process and the pain I was going to have to endure throughout my rehabilitation. It was something I was dreading because I knew how much it hurt. I was shocked at the time, but the one plus was that I knew what to expect."
Ivey has never been one to let adversity stand in her way. Coming back from the injury as a freshman, she developed into a fixture at the point guard position the past two seasons. As a sophomore Ivey returned to action to start 19 games and average 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds. She also had 90 assists and 77 steals and earned BIG EAST player-of-the-week honors for the first time in her career.
A year ago, she enjoyed a remarkable season as she averaged 13.2 points and 3.8 rebounds while leading the Irish with 181 assists and 74 steals. Ivey twice earned BIG EAST player-of-the-week accolades and finished in the top 10 in seven BIG EAST statistical categories on her way to gaining third-team all-BIG EAST honors. Ivey ranked first in three-point field goal percentage (.448), second in assists (6.5), steals (2.6) and assist-turnover ratio (2.1).
While playing just two full seasons at Notre Dame, Ivey already ranks seventh in three-point field goals made (72) and attempted (173), second in three-point percentage (41.6), ninth in assists (286), 13th in steals (159) and first in free-throw percentage (.830).
With her rehabilitation on schedule, Ivey has set her sights set on returning to the court and leading an Irish offense that finished second in the BIG EAST in scoring last season. "I should be cleared to play again by the end of August," Ivey says. "My rehabilitation is going well and right now I'm working on my court agility. I'm at the point now where I'm doing more on the court than in the training room."
In addition to working with assistant trainer Mike Miller, Ivey also is taking summer school classes at Notre Dame to ensure that she will graduate in May of 2000. While she is enjoying the summer months, her return to the court for practice in October cannot come soon enough.
"I know I'm making great progress," Ivey says, "but it all seems so slow to me. I'm at a point right now where I feel like its been an eternity since I last played."
With so much already accomplished and so much more to do, Ivey has her sights set on returning to the Notre Dame lineup. With an experienced team that returns four starters and welcomes top freshmen Alicia Ratay, Monique Hernandez and Amanda Barksdale, Ivey is optimistic about what this team can accomplish this season.
"I'm really looking forward to returning to the court and playing the way I was before the injury," Ivey says. "Physically I'll be all right, but mentally getting back into the swing of things will be the toughest thing I'll have to face. But I'm prepared to go through that, all I want to do now is play."
When Ivey gets back on the floor, the thought of past injuries may come to mind, but they will be something that she won't let become bothersome or affect her play.
"I think the two injuries will be in the back of my mind," Ivey says, "but I'm just going to focus on playing basketball. I've been told that the percentage is very low of someone suffering an ACL injury on the same knee. Hopefully, that will hold true for me."
The determination and drive in Ivey has is something that motivates her teammates as well as the entire Notre Dame community. Always the optimist, she knows that she will return to the form that helped her team spend 16 consecutive weeks in the top 10 a year ago. The support from those around her has been the driving force for Ivey during the past several months.
"My family and teammates have helped me a lot," Ivey says. "As a matter of fact, the whole Notre Dame community has been extremely supportive."
Despite a busy summer schedule, Ivey has thoughts about the upcoming season and what she expects from herself as well as her teammates.
"I want to lead us to a championship this year," Ivey says. " I think we have a realistic chance of doing that. We have a veteran team with a great deal of experience and a talented incoming freshman class. If we can focus on our goals, we should be very good." Last year Notre Dame finished with a 26-5 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year. As a sophomore, she was a key member of a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, but played the role of spectator when her team went tot he 1997 Final Four.
"I think last year we learned that we were looking too far ahead rather than taking it one game at a time," Ivey says. "We learned that every game is important."