SOUTH BEND — On the eve of a season opener that marks the beginning of a new era in Notre Dame women’s basketball, players did have their minds at least partially on Tuesday’s game at Fordham.
Their hearts, though, were parked closer to teammate Abby Prohaska.
The sophomore guard revealed Monday morning on Twitter that she’s been diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary embolism.
“In other words, I have a blood clot in each of my lungs,” Prohaska’s tweet read in part. “The amount of time I will be out is indefinite, but I will be right alongside this team for every game I cannot play.”
Continued Prohaska, “I am thankful for the endless support and love from my family, my teammates, my coaches and my friends. This is just a bump in the road.”
Prohaska is likely to remain sidelined until at least January under the “best-case” scenario that coach Muffet McGraw offered during a pre-practice media session Monday afternoon.
Prohaska was not made available during that session.
Junior center Mikayla Vaughn said the players have known unofficially for a couple weeks about their teammate’s likely extended absence from games.
Given their concern, though, the development still seemed more raw Monday than even the overall experience level on ND’s young roster.
“I just feel really bad,” Vaughn said. “I feel like Abby’s had so many small, nagging injuries and things that are super bizarre. This is another one that’s exceptionally bizarre, (but) it’s very serious, too, so even aside from basketball, I’m obviously keeping her in my thoughts and prayers.”
Prohaska had not been feeling well for a while and had not been up to her usual speed in practice, but also had undergone blood work that checked out fine, according to McGraw, before going to the emergency room on Oct. 17, just before fall break.
“That’s when we found out what it was,” the coach said.
McGraw indicated that Prohaska going to a doctor as soon as she did may have helped save the Ohio native’s life.
“She’s somebody that likes to push through, keep working harder and harder,” McGraw said, “so I’m just thankful that she finally said, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”
Fellow sophomore Danielle Cosgrove said teammates had encouraged Prohaska to be proactive.
“Abby’s a pretty tough kid, so we could kind of see something wasn’t right,” Cosgrove said, “so we were like, ‘You should really go get this checked out.’ … Obviously, we didn’t think it would be anything like what it is, but we’re behind her.”
Cosgrove and McGraw called Prohaska’s mood outstanding under the circumstances.
“It’s kind of a huge blow to know that something life-threatening could happen to you at the age of 19,” McGraw said. “She’s handling it great, but it’s going to get tougher as the season goes on.”
From a playing perspective, the loss of the scrappy Prohaska serves as a blow to a relatively youthful group that has just eight other scholarship players.
Though the roster also includes a pair of grad-student transfers in guards Marta Sniezek from Stanford and Destinee Walker from North Carolina, it’s Prohaska who owned more minutes in a Notre Dame uniform than anybody in the program at the 549 she played as a freshman.
“We obviously know you can succeed with a small roster,” McGraw said, alluding to the Irish winning the 2018 national title with seven healthy scholarship players, “but not at the beginning of the year. It’s OK to have that happen throughout the year through attrition, but when you start the year with only seven (or eight) scholarship players, that’s a little bit of a concern for me. Foul trouble is a big concern. It changes everything, it really does.”
Prohaska, who saw Final Four action last spring, averaged just 1.5 points and 1.8 rebounds in 14.4 minutes while making 38 appearances as a freshman, but the lefty also finished second on the team in steals per 40 minutes at 2.2. All-American Arike Ogunbowale was first at 2.3.
“Players have to step up now,” Vaughn said. “We don’t have one of our best defenders, one of our energy bunnies.”
Forward Sam Brunelle and guard Anaya Peoples will get starts Tuesday, according to McGraw, marking the first time in 18 years that two freshmen will start an opener for the Irish.
Even when Jacqueline Batteast and Teresa Borton were in the lineup in 2001, it was the first time for two Notre Dame freshmen to get the nod in 20 years.
Vaughn, Sniezek and Walker complete McGraw’s anticipated first five at Fordham.
Sophomore Katlyn Gilbert was a prime candidate to start as well, according to the coach, but will come off the bench for at least the first game “mostly because” of the amount of practice time she missed due to injuries in September and October.
“So we’ve got one (starter) with Notre Dame experience,” McGraw said with a sheepish smile.
The coach discounted some of the collegiate experience that Sniezek and Walker bring overall, particularly Walker.
“They’re like freshmen, because it’s our system,” McGraw said. “It’s different, and Destinee hasn’t played (except for four games) in the last two years. She’s really only had like a year and a half of playing experience, so she’s sort of like a sophomore. Marta’s had three years, but didn’t play last year (due to injury).”
The coach said she’s not sure her team’s ready for a game, particularly a road opener on the heels of no exhibition game this year, “but we need game experience, and there’s no way to get it except games. We’re going to take a lot of lumps, I think, in the early going.”
The players were more eager Monday.
“I think we’re jazzed,” Vaughn said. “I think we’re ready to stop (practicing only). We want to keep practicing, obviously, but the first game is always something different. I know our freshmen and our transfers who haven’t played here are probably super-stoked, so I’m excited for them.”
For Cosgrove, Tuesday’s opener in the Bronx will take place roughly 50 miles from her home in Holbrook, N.Y.
“It’s an away game, but it feels like home to me,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove said she attended at least a pair of Fordham games at Rose Hill Gym when she was in high school because she had “a couple friends who knew some girls on the team.”
Fordham recruited Cosgrove, “but I think I’ve always known I wanted to venture out a little bit.”
Cosgrove’s experience with Rose Hill — opened in 1925 and billed by Fordham as the oldest on-campus gym still used by an NCAA Division I program — actually exceeds that of McGraw’s.
Though McGraw played and coached out East before arriving at Notre Dame, she said she’s never been to Rose Hill.
Cosgrove said her parents are among “about 15 or 16” family and friends expected to attend Tuesday.