Oct. 22, 2013
By Ben Brockman '16
Ariel Braker is no stranger to adversity.
After suffering through a serious knee injury in high school and another knee injury during her sophomore season at Notre Dame, the senior forward and native of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., has worked hard to get back to the court and play the game that she loves.
Despite injuries early in her career, Braker saw increased playing time as a junior last season. She played 36 of the team's 37 contests in 2012-13 and started 33 of those outings while helping the Fighting Irish reach the NCAA Final Four for the third year in a row. Along with the increase in playing time, Braker saw jumps in almost every statistical category. She averaged 5.4 points and 5.4 rebounds last season and led the team with 45 blocked shots (also ranking among the top 10 in the BIG EAST Conference).
"I think I just realized that I didn't have that much time, especially going into my junior year," Braker says of the 2012-13 campaign. "I knew that I had a chance to make an impact for that next year, so the first thing I needed to be ready was to be healthy."
Braker realizes that recovering from her injury didn't happen overnight. The effort that she put into getting back on the court was sometimes met with frustration. Braker often believed that she was ready to start playing again, but the team's medical personnel were more cautious.
"Even when you do feel fine and that you are able to play, you kind of think you are going to pick up right where you left off, but it is a process to get to where you were before," Braker says.
According to Braker, everyone - from her coaches being patient and having faith that she would work hard to get back, to the trainers making sure the muscles around her knee continued to grow stronger, to her teammates supporting her day in and day out - helped her to recover from her injuries and to realize the success she experienced last season.
From a personal standpoint, however, the thing that Braker believes helped her the most was a newfound sense of urgency after her injury sophomore year.
"After that year I think I really honed in with [assistant athletic trainer] Anne [Marquez] and was ready to get things done," the Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. native recalls. "I actually came back with a sense of urgency, and I think that made a big difference."
While Braker is fully recovered and ready for another great season in 2013-14, the specter of her injuries still loom over her.
"It's hard because I have to think about it sometimes," Braker says. "I have to be conscious of how I'm falling, how I'm running, and how I'm jumping."
If Braker is still concerned that she might reinjure her knee, it is hard to see by her play. Her aggressive attitude on the court and athletic 6-1 frame lend well to her defensive prowess and are part of the reason why she has become such a rebounding force and shot-blocking threat on the defensive end.
"If you play really good defense, it takes pressure off your offense," she explains. "I think that is more of what I look for, to get stops and rebounds and things like that."
Braker contributes much of her increased playing time last year to her ability to play effective defense.
"Defense is why I got recruited to come here and so I think really focusing on the things I could control on defense was a major contribution, so Coach (Muffet McGraw) could trust that she could put me in the game," Braker says.
While Braker has most of the defensive part of the game figured out, she will have to fill a role this season that she has never experienced before.
"I don't think it really hit me, the fact that I was going to have that senior leader role, until I got back here in the fall," she remarks. "I think I have been doing a pretty good job of helping the underclassmen, guiding them where they need to be on offense and defense, helping them with the plays, but also keeping them encouraged."
While Braker may be looking to fill that senior leadership role, several players may be asked to step up and fill the void left by Notre Dame's all-time leading scorer, Skylar Diggins, who was drafted into the WNBA by the Tulsa Shock in April.
"Obviously, she is a very good player," Braker says. "We are going to look to other people to step up this year to pick up the slack for what she did, and looking at it now, we are getting there."
Braker is a member of a senior class that has been to the Final Four each of the last three years, and she expects nothing less for the upcoming season. She and her teammates are also looking forward to competing for a championship in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We want to show [the ACC] that we are a good team," Braker says. "We are here to compete for conference and national championships -- that's why we came to Notre Dame."
Braker knows that the only way to accomplish these goals is to continue to strive with the same work ethic that allowed her to overcome her injuries.
"Personally for me, I think this year is about not taking anything for granted and knowing after every game, win or lose, that I went out there and I gave it my all," she says. "That is my main focus when I'm out there, to give it my all."
-- ND --