SOUTH BEND — Mikki Vaughn confesses to being torn about even participating in a basketball game these days, and it has nothing to do with those two torn knees the Notre Dame center has endured.
“I know that there are a lot of safety precautions being taken, but in all those precautions, we still can’t control the bug,” Vaughn said Wednesday afternoon during a Zoom call in advance of her team’s game Thursday night at Boston College.
“If we play a team that has people who (later) test positive for COVID, that’s something that is inevitable that I could end up getting the virus no matter what,” Vaughn said, “so I think that, no, I still don’t feel very safe playing.
“But I know this is my final season, my senior season,” Vaughn added, later clarifying that she’s not decided for sure that it’s her last season, “and I wouldn’t want to give up on my team, so we’re trying to do everything we can to stay as safe as we can, but knowing that we can’t do everything — even with all our efforts — that’s scary, and I think that’s where I feel most unsafe.”
Vaughn shared her feelings Wednesday when asked about a tweet she posted a couple weeks ago.
In that post, she also retweeted a tweet from national journalist Jemele Hill, who condemned that sports are being played.
Hill’s own post was in response to news that Florida men’s player Keyontae Johnson had been diagnosed with heart inflammation related to COVID-19.
“We willingly sacrificed these players for money and entertainment,” Hill wrote. “We won’t know the extent of the damage for years.”
“!!!!!!! Everytime I mentioned how irresponsible and dangerous it was to have sports seasons this year everyone countered with all the money that would be lost,” Vaughn wrote. “..... what about the LIVES”
The first in-season, COVID-induced alterations to the Notre Dame women’s schedule were announced Wednesday by the Atlantic Coast Conference as the Irish joined many other programs around the nation that already have had games canceled or postponed.
ND’s game Sunday at Syracuse and next week’s home contest against Pittsburgh are both postponed due to those latter two programs each engaging in coronavirus responses.
“I personally express a lot of concern because I have people in my family who are at very high risk to this virus,” Vaughn said of why she has spoken up. “That’s the reason I didn’t go home for Christmas.”
Not going home was the latest sacrifice for a player who’s made others during her Irish career.
She made one last season when she returned less than eight weeks after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during the opener at Fordham.
Vaughn already had sustained a season-ending ACL tear in her left knee six games into her wildly promising freshman season in 2017. She underwent surgery that cost her a playing role on an ND club that went on to win the national title.
In 2017-18, Vaughn’s presence might’ve been a luxury on a loaded team.
By 2019-20, however, she was part of a program in transition, one with no other healthy players back from the previous season owning significant experience in an Irish uniform.
So Vaughn opted to delay surgery, engaging in a seven-week rehab instead. She ended up averaging 10.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 26.6 minutes over 20 games.
Niele Ivey, at the time a first-year assistant with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and now Notre Dame’s first-year head coach, contacted Vaughn when she learned that the 6-foot-3 lefty was returning so quickly last season.
“She came back and fought her way on an injured knee, wore a knee brace, but she knew that her team needed her, and that spoke volumes to me,” Ivey said Wednesday. “I remember reaching out to her and just saying how proud I am as a former player to see what she did for the team. That was a selfless move that she did last year.”
Ivey, like Vaughn, returned from two ACL injuries during her Irish career.
“Unless you’ve gone through it, you have no idea how hard it is,” Ivey said. “It’s extremely hard, and she’s had to do it twice.”
Vaughn finally underwent reconstructive surgery on her right knee last March, which led to her missing the first four games this season.
As has been her nature during her time at Notre Dame, Vaughn puts a positive spin on her setbacks.
“This might sound kind of weird, but now that I’ve done both,” Vaughn said of her surgeries, “I feel a lot more balanced. … I feel a lot more stable, and knowing I’ve worked on both sides and they’re both pretty equal, it gives me comfort. Obviously, I would’ve liked not to have a second ACL tear, but that’s done and gone, and I just feel a lot more stable in general.”
After averaging 4.3 points and 17.5 minutes over her first four games this season, Vaughn helped spark the Irish early and lead them late in Sunday’s 69-67 win against Georgia Tech.
She scored 11 points, hitting 5-of-7 shots from the field, and made a career-high four steals over 30 minutes. Across the final 4:49, she scored five points, nabbed two steals and blocked a shot.
“She means so much,” Ivey said of Vaughn, who has at least one more season of eligibility after this one and possibly two under NCAA rules. “She’s our captain, she’s our leader, she’s our vocal presence. She brings a lot of experience, hard work, passion.”
After the Tech game, the coach heaped praise upon her center for her toughness.
On Wednesday, Vaughn initially blushed when asked about that toughness.
“(It’s) from the people I come from, the strength that’s within my family,” said Vaughn, whose father, Martin, was a standout quarterback at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve got so many people who have paved the way, from my parents, my sisters, my brothers, and I look up to that strength and I try to replicate it. If that means I have to play on a torn ACL or if that means I have to go to class when I’m super tired, whatever the case may be on and off the court, I just recognize the Vaughn strength that I have and I try to channel it.”