About the one saving grace was that Mackenzie Latt didn't hear a "pop."
It was a noise that has become associated with an ACL or other ligament tear, and when Latt went up for a block on a fast-break layup and came down straight on her knee against Arrowhead in the regional final, everyone in the gym feared the worst.
It came at a terrible time. With less than half of the fourth quarter to go in a tie game, Hamilton needed the junior Latt's inside presence, and a red-hot Arrowhead wound up winning, 46-40, en route to an appearance in the state tournament. Not only was Hamilton's brilliant season over at 21-3, but now a talented post player in the throes of the recruiting process had an uncertain medical outlook.
"We saw the doctor at the beginning of the day and they did some routine moving around and testing," Latt said. "They didn't make a diagnosis because I was getting an MRI later that day, but they were definitely expecting it to be worse, too. When we got the results, we were just so thankful that it wasn't an ACL or torn ligament."
Latt had torn her posterior capsule in the back of her knee and had a bone bruise in the front. It was painful, but it was only a six-week recovery time.
"I broke thumbs and toes before, but there was nothing at that level of pain I had experienced before," Latt said.
It was a silver lining on the abrupt ending to the Chargers' excellent season, one that wrapped with a second consecutive (and second ever) conference championship. The unanimous first-team All State selection will still get to play the majority of her AAU season, and the Chargers will be among the favorites to reach the state tournament next winter.
She's trying to be among the first at her school - but not the first in her family - to get that far.
Like mother, like daughter
Mackenzie's path has already tread in her mother's footsteps. Dee Latt, an assistant varsity coach at Hamilton, went 26-0 as a senior with Huron High School in Ohio, winning the state title. In September, Dee (nee Cherry) will travel back to Ohio as her team is inducted into the school's Hall of Fame - of which she is already a member as an individual.
"We are still very close to this day - 30 years later," Dee said of her ex-teammates. "It was a special time and that has always been a dream for my own children, to love their high school experiences in sports as much as I did."
Dee Latt's program broke the state record for most consecutive wins during her career, and she went on to play at the University of Toledo. In high school, Cherry scored 1,000 points like her daughter would someday, though she reached the plateau as a senior. Mackenzie (1,135 points) has already reached the mark as a junior, becoming the first Hamilton player to ever score 1,000.
"Mackenzie's basketball game is way more advanced than mine was at her age," Dee said. "I was a forward with a back-to-the-basket game. I played basketball in the off-season outside with the guys, while she does the AAU circuit. Times have changed. We both love the game the same, though."
Hamilton head coach Dan Carey sees that similarity, as well.
"She's so kind and compassionate and has a great heart and is really easy to talk to, but she's also a fiery competitor on the court," Carey said of Dee, who coached the freshman team in Carey's first two years and lost a total of three games. "Her ability to handle being a mom and a coach is very difficult, and she does it as well as she possibly can."
Mackenzie said she loves having her mother on the bench.
"She knows me, she knows my game," Mackenzie said. "She knows me as a person. It's a very special experience to be able to go on this journey with her. I'm very blessed."
Dee is proud of her daughter's humility and credits Mackenzie's strong faith for keeping her grounded and poised. She has a lot on her shoulders as the centerpiece of Hamilton's ascension into one of the state's top teams, averaging 19.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. She shot 61 percent from the field and added 4.4 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
"I struggled with it in the beginning," Latt said of the spotlight. "I felt pressure and didn't quite know how to handle it. It helped a lot to have my sister (Danielle) on the team, and I had my mom, as well. I leaned on them for the first two years and this summer, I worked really hard on my game and that added level of confidence I didn't have before. I think that carried over into my junior year. I go out there knowing I have to get it done."
Danielle, who played in all 25 games this year for Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., started alongside her sister on last year's team, which clinched its first-ever conference title by topping Divine Savior Holy Angels in overtime in the season finale, 59-54. Mackenzie scored a season-high 31 in the thriller. She scored 31 again in an early-season win over Pius this year, and the Chargers were ranked among the season's top teams all season.
"She really does a good job of keeping things in proper perspective," Carey said. "Sometimes in athletics, things can get blown out of proportion, and she really gets it. She came into the season really focused and not letting anything knock her off track. Her teammates really followed her in that this year."
She also came in with a newfound explosiveness.
"We went to a (University of Wisconsin) Green Bay game and watched Julie Wojta put up a triple double, and (Mackenzie) was just in awe," Carey said. "She said, 'I want to be like her, to be able to fly around the court, block shots, get steals, rebounds, assists … just be more athletic. She completely transformed her body and got more athletic and caught a lot of coaches' eyes."
Latt remembers the game well.
"She was just so strong and could jump so high, and you wouldn't look at her at first and see that; it was unexpected," she said. "We got to talk with (Wojta) a little bit and she explained how it wasn't that way in the beginning. I'm not there at that level, not even close, but to strive for that goal and maybe get there someday is something that motivates me in my workouts."
To get beyond that regional roadblock, to finish the college recruiting process, to overcome the injury and to top her mother in one key career milestone … it seems there will be no shortage of motivation for Latt in the year ahead.
"We're going to come back with that much more fire in our bellies," Latt said.
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