Wincing in pain and fighting back tears, Soukaina Tracy refused to let anyone help her walk off the court.
In her mind, accepting help would've meant there was no denying she'd suffered her second anterior cruciate ligament tear in her left knee in 16 months.
Maybe if she walked off on her own, she could still play in an upcoming AAU tournament in front of dozens of NCAA Division I college coaches. Maybe if she walked off on her own, she could still play her senior year of high school basketball at Hanover. Maybe if she walked off on her own, she'd run out of the tunnel for a major Division I team her freshman year of college.
Until that day in April 2015, Tracy's career seemed headed for the big-time college stage.
She drove to the basket during a game of one-on-one, leaned forward on her left leg to try to create some separation, and the leg gave out. The ligament and meniscus ripped, and she felt it as she heard a crackling sound.
She lay on the court for a while, crying. Her knee hurt, but worse was the feeling that this new injury erased the nine-month rehab from her last ACL tear. It erased her great junior season that had won back all of the college coaches who doubted her after the first injury. It erased two months of going to the Hanover Area YMCA every day at 6 a.m. before school to work on her game.
If not for that second injury, Tracy, who graduated from Hanover High School in May, would've been headed to college on a scholarship. Now she's just trying to raise enough money for a second chance by babysitting every day and sharing her story online.
Her mother, Wendy, is working three jobs to help send her to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
That's where Tracy will take one last shot to prove she can play college basketball.
• • •
If she'd never gotten hurt, Soukaina Tracy might have gone down as the best basketball player in Hanover High School's 96-year history.
The school's all-time leading scorer on the girls' side, current York College coach Betsy Witman, scored 1,404 points in her four-year career. The school's all-time leading scorer on the boys' side, 2015 graduate Dylan Krieger, scored 1,408 in his career.
In less than three seasons, Tracy scored 1,091 points.
“She absolutely would've broken that record," Hanover coach Denny Garman said. "She was the best player on the team right away. She probably would’ve started for us as an eighth-grader if you could do that.”
Tracy made her presence felt her freshman year, leading the Hawkettes to their first district playoff win in five years. Four or five recruitment letters poured into her mailbox everyday.
“I was extremely optimistic for sophomore year, I was as excited as ever," Tracy remembers. "We were only losing two starters and our senior class was a tight group. I was excited to get the season started because I knew it was gonna be a good one.”
With seven games left in that season, her first ACL tear erased all that optimism.
During a January game against Biglerville on her home court, Tracy came around a screen on a sideline inbounds play. She cut in an effort to get open, her left foot slipped, and her knee bent the way knees aren't built to bend. She heard a crashing sound in her knee as the bones held in place by the ACL lost their support and banged into each other.
“The sound is traumatizing," Tracy said. "It’s a terrible feeling. Not only the sound, but you feel your bones connect and you hear your bones connect. That’s how you know you tore it, when you hear that popping sound of the bones connecting.”
As she lay on the ground, she knew right away what had happened to her knee. It had never happened to her before, but she'd heard about it. The injury runs in the family: her great-grandfather, grandfather, mother and sister have all torn an ACL.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported a steady increase in the number of ACL tears among athletes younger than 18 during the past two decades. More than 70 percent of the time, they are non-contact injuries. The injury occurs in females more than twice as often as males, and it's not uncommon for ACL tears to run in families.
"I'm the only one in my family that got lucky and tore it twice," Tracy said, shaking her head.
The recruitment letters slowed as the injury scared college coaches away. Months would go by between letters of interest.
She underwent her first ACL surgery and started rehab.
She knew she'd have to prove herself all over again.
• • •
Even though she couldn't play a game for nine months, Soukaina Tracy got right back on the court after her first injury.
Scott Singer, the founder of Next Level Basketball who has trained Tracy for more than three years, and Dr. Brian Bixler, who performed Tracy's first ACL surgery, created a program for basketball players recovering from the surgery that allowed them to perform certain drills at each stage of their recovery. Tracy started by dribbling in a chair, then began stationary shooting and stationary dribbling.
She returned to the court in time for the first week of her junior season.
In her first game back, she scored 37 points and came up one assist shy of a triple-double against Biglerville. The performance, which came against the same team she got hurt against, left no doubt that she was picking up right where she left off.
“That’s unheard of. Usually kids have rust, they have doubt in their mind, they’re still a little fearful," Singer said. "She was really ready after her first one. She was every bit as good, if not better, because of all the skill work we were able to do during that time.”
As her junior season continued, the college recruitment letters started flowing in every day again. Scholarship offers came in from two Division I college programs: Delaware and Maryland-Baltimore County.
She expected to pick up even more offers at the Deep South Basketball Classic, held every April in Raleigh, N.C.
"The Deep South is one of the more nationally-known AAU tournaments, and most coaches go there," Garman said. "She had a lot of interest in schools down south. I sent highlight video out to a bunch of those schools and got calls back every day. Auburn, Alabama, Florida State, all those southern schools she was interested in said, ‘We’ll be there, we’re gonna go watch her.’”
But she never got that chance to show those coaches what she could do. The second ACL injury struck a few weeks before the tournament.
"After the second time she tore it, she was still going to try to play in the tournament," said Brett Swope, who works with Tracy at his New Oxford training facility, Elite Sports Performance. "She wanted to see if we could help her get in playing form. We didn’t think it was a good idea, but the doctors said she could try it. But she had a little setback and that’s the first time I really saw her get discouraged.”
Tracy headed for her second surgery, and this time her doctors and trainers slowed the recovery process.
She missed her entire AAU season for the second year in a row, missing out on the two crucial years that many players lock up their best offers. She supported her teams from the bench for a while, but then stopped going to the games. It was just too hard to see what she was missing so up close.
She also didn't play a single game for Hanover her senior year, watching from the bench as the team struggled through an eight-win season. She agonized over the close games she knew they could've won if she had been out there.
"It was so hard for her," Garman remembers. "In the public eye, you’d never know it because she was at our games, she was jumping up and down and waving the towel when the other girls did something exciting. Not a lot of people could do what she did. She put a smile on her face, but she was definitely hurting inside.”
The flow of recruitment letters completely stopped. Coaches who had made offers backed off until they could see her play again.
With her future uncertain, Tracy struggled to open up about what she was feeling.
“She went through a lot of depression," said her mom, Wendy Tracy. "She had to work through the mental part of it because it was hard for her to sit back and miss all of her goals and everything that she had for her senior year and her team. It was really hard for her and it was hard for me.”
• • •
Soukaina started to feel like herself again after she signed her letter of intent to play at IMG Academy in April.
She had never even heard of the academy until Wendy discovered it through a Google search last winter.
IMG Academy is best known in the sports world as a world-class performance training facility visited by top-tier athletes. A lesser-known service the academy offers are high school and one-year post-graduate programs for several sports.
The idea of playing for a post-graduate team came from Singer, who has seen several players play an extra year while getting their grades up to a collegiate level.
It can also be a good option for players coming off an injury. In either case, the main benefit of taking a post-graduate year rather than playing for a junior college is that post-graduate players can play without losing a year of college eligibility.
Devon Moore, a 2015 Delone Catholic graduate, recently finished up a post-graduate year at The Phelps School in Malvern. Like Tracy, he saw two Division I offers evaporate after undergoing a second ACL surgery and missing his senior basketball season. His postgraduate year helped him secure a scholarship to Merrimack College, a Division II school.
“It’s definitely something I would recommend," Moore said of taking a post-graduate year. "I was able to improve in the classroom a lot. The competition is also twice as good as it is in high school, you’re playing against future college athletes every night. That’s probably the biggest advantage: when you go to college for your first year, you’ll be ahead of the game and a little bit further along than the rest of the freshmen that are coming in.”
Wendy got into contact with coaches at IMG Academy, who invited the Tracys down for an interview once they saw Soukaina's highlight tape.
“The facilities are amazing. It is like a resort, it’s incredible," Wendy said. "We walked into the weight room and I was like, ‘Wow, these kids are huge.’ They were like, ‘Oh, those are NFL players, they’re just here working out before the combine.’”
IMG Academy made Soukaina an offer, and she took it. In addition to the facilities, IMG Academy offers access to well-regarded trainers and sports psychologists right on campus. The academy will also set Soukaina up with classes to start her college education at the nearby University of South Florida.
“When IMG came along, it was almost like she had a new glow to her," Garman said. "That’s probably the best route for her because it’s kind of like a redshirt year and she gets an opportunity to prove herself again.”
The team's coaches also asked Soukaina for a list of schools she's interested in playing at so that they can start reaching out and sending highlight tapes to restart her college recruitment.
Unlike post-graduate teams at prep schools that play against other prep schools, IMG Academy plays most of its schedule against junior college opponents.
“I just didn’t feel that there was any downside," Singer said of IMG Academy. "Soukaina wanted to go south anyway. She doesn’t lose any eligibility and they’ve got a world-class facility. To me, it basically became a no-brainer at that point in time.”
• • •
Soukaina looks forward to departing for Bradenton on Aug. 20, but first she needs to come up with the money to pay for tuition. IMG Academy granted her more than $40,000 in scholarship money, but she still has to pay $30,000. And it needs to be paid up front.
This summer, Wendy Tracy is working three jobs to earn as much money as possible. Soukaina is babysitting several hours a day — in between morning practices at the Y everyday and workouts with Swope and Singer a few times a week — to earn what she can.
That alone might not be enough, so Soukaina also created a page on an online fundraising site called GoFundMe in the hopes that family, friends and community members will donate money toward her comeback.
“I’m not one that likes putting myself out there and getting that attention on myself," Soukaina said. "It feels weird because I don’t want people to pity me. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
In her heart, Soukaina believes she will prove to college coaches that she still belongs on the big stage. Her family, coaches and trainers believe it too, so long as she stays healthy.
This past spring, Singer hosted a program he called "Senior Sundays" for graduating seniors who no longer had AAU games to scrimmage with each other.
“Soukaina came in and, from the start, was clearly the best one there. Nobody in that group could guard her,” Singer said. “I don’t think she’s quite as explosive off that leg just quite yet. She’s still explosive off her other leg, but I’d put her at 90 or 95 percent of what she was before. But I’m fully convinced she will be, she just has to get the reps.”
The thought that she could injure her leg again doesn't scare her. The only task on her mind is making the most of her second chance.
“It’ll always be in the back of my head," Tracy said. "But right now I’m playing basketball and I don’t think about it. It doesn’t affect me playing-wise, I still go out there and attack the way I do. I believe I’ve still got it.”