There’s a fragility to sports, where a singular moment can end a season, or in the case of Natick senior Emily Gustus, a playing career.
After sustaining her fifth concussion, in an AAU game with the Massachusetts Bearcats in the spring of 2018, it appeared Gustus would have to stop playing the only sport she truly loved. However, with dogged determination, the 5-foot-8-inch guard with impressive 3-point range is back and thriving for the fifth-ranked Red Hawks (17-2).
“Just because I missed so much time, I’m just really happy that I was able to get this last season,” said Gustus, who is averaging about 9 points a game. “Basketball really is my passion.”
The 17-year-old Gustus has sustained all but one of her concussions playing basketball.
She sustained her last one taking a charge in that AAU game, smacking her head on the floor. Her trademark hustle — so often something that worked to her advantage — became a detriment.
“That was by far the worst,” Gustus said. “I just sat on the bench in a daze . . . I’m always on the ground for loose balls, and that has put me in more situations to get hit in the head, too.”
While the blow didn’t knock her out (thankfully, none of her concussions have), that moment forced Gustus to take a step back. She missed a full week of school. Then, for the rest of her sophomore academic year, she did half-days. Gustus finished classes in summer.
“Summer is a time to relax, but having to be thinking about doing those tests added stress on trying to recover,” she said.
There have been other challenges. After making the Natick varsity team as a freshman, she had her appendix removed. She missed time as a sophomore because of a foot infection. But the final concussion at first appeared as an unscalable wall.
In the fall of 2018, her father, Chris, pitched the reality and importance of long-term health.
“I was trying to avoid that conversation as long as possible,” Gustus said. “At first, I got a little emotional. I was kind of upset, but I knew that realistically, I should be taking the year off.”
Still, she went to every practice and game. She remained on the roster with the hope of a possible return.
Natick coach Dan Hinnenkamp said Gustus took on the role of an assistant coach, inspiring a new passion. Gustus said she probably won’t play in college, which she once hoped to do, but will likely explore coaching while pursuing a business degree. She coached a Natick youth team last year. “She’ll be a phenomenal coach, just a straight-up phenomenal coach,” Hinnenkamp said.
Last spring, Gustus and her father talked about a return to competitive basketball. But it required her to get back into pristine shape. She attended biweekly physical therapy sessions to work on her neck strength.
However Hinnenkamp was never mentally prepared to have her back until October, in case there were complications. But when the headaches subsided, Gustus was cleared to return to play.
Natick senior Mackenzie Burgoyne, sidelined this season with a torn ACL, remembers Gustus just not being herself last year. Now that Gustus is playing, Burgoyne noticed a change.
“She’s a pretty goofy person and is showing that more,” Burgoyne said. “Last year, she was down. She didn’t seem herself, but basketball brings her up.”
There are still considerations when Gustus plays, “gingerly,” as Hinnenkamp puts it. She can’t really dive to the floor. After the first half of each game, she’s assessed by the coaching staff to see if she should keep playing.
“Every time she stumbles a little or goes down, we’re very nervous about it because we’ve seen it several times before,” Chris Gustus said. “Quite frankly, she has to play a different way than she used to. It’s a little nervewracking to say the least.”
Gustus still plays hard, and is continuing to learn the balance between safety and hustle.
“We’re very proud of her because she’s worked very hard to even have the possibility to be on the court,” Chris Gustus said.
Her teammates elected Gustus a team captain, along with Globe All-Scholastic Brenna McDonald and point guard Laney Ross. They all hope for a long run, all the way to a Division 1 state title.
■ This was a season of transition for the Braintree girls’ basketball team.
The two-time defending Division 1 state champions opened the season with a new coach and a new starting five. Kristen McDonnell departed after 10 seasons, 211 wins, and four state titles to be the varsity boys’ coach at Norwood High.
And graduation, and a key injury, claimed all five starters.
Braintree’s 10-10 record would be unfamiliar to previous teams — but a 54-48 victory over No. 18 Hingham last Saturday in an IAABO Board 27 Comcast Classic semifinal at Woburn High was enough to secure a place in the Division 1 South state tournament.
“It was looking pretty bleak after the Weymouth game, we certainly didn’t put our best foot forward,” said first-year Braintree coach Matt Freeman, referencing a 44-37 Bay State Conference defeat.
“But we sandwiched [wins] around that, we’ve beaten [No. 6 Needham] and Hingham, so I’m really proud of the girls for stepping up and beating another quality team.”
■ The MIAA North, Central, and South tournament pairings will be released Friday, with first-round play scheduled to start Monday. The West pairings will be released Saturday.
The state finals are set for March 13-14, with six of the eight games to be played at the DCU Center in Worcester.
■ In her 34th season on the bench at Bentley, Barbara Stevens is the fourth winningest coach in NCAA history (1,057-289 overall; 900-289 at Bentley). And for the second straight year, she is a finalist for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Her 2019-20 roster includes Bishop Feehan grads Marissa Fontaine (Franklin) and Bri Gillen (Lakeville), and Monica Viapiano (Holden) from Holy Name, in addition to Noble & Greenough grad Julia Ford (Charlton). Her associate head coach, Westwood High grad C White, has been involved with the program in 21 of 22 seasons as standout point guard and then coach. “All you want to do is make a positive impact on their lives,” said Stevens of her players, past and current. “I’ve heard from so many of my former players because of this, and the neatest thing of all is that they just say thank you. I mean that’s really neat, that’s kind of what it’s all about, that’s why I do what I do.” The Hall announcement is April 4.
Greg Levinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Seamus McAvoy also contributed.