Slow recovery from ankle injury creates uncertainty for Notre Dame forward Kathryn Westbeld

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Kathryn Westbeld wakes up most days not knowing what her pain level will be.

Worse, she doesn’t know how long these days will continue, how long it’ll be until she’s back being who she’s been for Notre Dame women’s basketball, as opposed to on a restricted minute count. Or if it’s going to happen at all.

“I don’t know if I’m going to step out of bed limping or if I’m going to feel fine that day,” the senior forward said this week. “So it’s really frustrating, especially not being able to be out there with my team and contributing in games the way I’d like to.”

It’s also frustrating to not be able to comprehensively prepare for those games in the way she’s accustomed.

“I can’t even put it into words,” said Westbeld, an efficient and consistent starter as a sophomore and junior for the Irish. “I can barely practice some days, can only do some of the drills, and I need to be off about every other day.”

That’s hardly a formula that suggests Westbeld will be able to play three games in three days when Notre Dame competes in this weekend’s Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Fla.

In fact, Westbeld probably will not make it into all three, Irish coach Muffet McGraw predicted.

Westbeld — a returning captain and regularly described by McGraw as the team’s “glue” — has not healed nearly as quickly as projected after undergoing surgery in April to address the right ankle injury she suffered last January in practice.

“I should’ve been, from a surgery standpoint, done with the healing process by August 10th,” Westbeld said.

“Apparently, 99 percent of cases are 100 percent by now,” McGraw said of the procedure Westbeld underwent. “She’s the 1 percent that’s not.”

It’s not for a lack of effort on Westbeld’s part.

“She’s doing everything she needs to do and more,” McGraw said. “She’s probably doing more than she’s supposed to be doing.”

Westbeld has tried to follow training recommendations, has gotten second opinions and has “had a lot of blood work done to see if I’m deficient in anything, but nothing gives us the answers.”

“I also had a bone injury going into my freshman year and it took a long time to heal, so there’s similarity there,” Westbeld said. “We have our doctors and everybody trying to figure out why it’s taking so long for my bones to heal.”

In the meantime, Westbeld does what she can do with the court time she can stand.

“She keeps her spirits high,” junior and team scoring leader Arike Ogunbowale said. “She can’t always be here in practice, but when she is, and when she’s in games, she comes in hard, and that’s all that really matters.”

Despite careful watch on her playing time from the training staff, Westbeld is second for the No. 6-ranked Irish (3-0) in minutes off the bench at 17 per game.

In ND’s 72-67 comeback win at No. 18 Oregon State on Sunday, she managed a season-high 21 minutes.

In 51 minutes overall, her scoring is way down at eight points, but she’s still made four of eight shots, and has 15 rebounds with five assists.

It comes on the heels of the 6-foot-2 Westbeld averaging 8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 22.2 minutes, shooting 55 percent from the field and making 60 starts over her sophomore and junior seasons.

“When she’s in the game, we just look better,” McGraw said of why she bestows the “glue” tag on Westbeld. “Everything looks better because she’s on the floor. She facilitates, she’s great against the press, she’s going to get a big rebound when we need one. She can just do so many things.”

In another cruel twist, Westbeld is doing those things as the lone active player left for at least this season from ND’s recruiting class of 2014 that also included Brianna Turner and Mychal Johnson.

Turner, an All-American last season, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in last year’s NCAA Tournament and is sitting out the season as she recovers. Johnson, after working back from a shoulder injury, suffered her own ACL tear last month and is also out for the season.

“It’s just heart-breaking to see Bri redshirting, and Mychal, right after her shoulder injury, to tear her ACL,” Westbeld said. “There are no words for how much I feel for them. It’s sad.”

It’s also odd, the former high school All-American from Kettering, Ohio, says.

“I came in with them and I don’t really know if I’m going out with either of them,” Westbeld said. “I don’t know Mychal’s plans for next year (in terms of whether to redshirt), but not being able to play with her and Bri as seniors, we pictured that since freshman year, so it’s really hard.”

While there have been questions about Westbeld applying for a medical redshirt of her own, she’s adamant that that’s not the route she wants.

By NCAA rules, her injury would have to ultimately be deemed incapacitating and she would have to participate in no more than 30 percent of this season to gain another season.

“It’s been in the back of my mind just because I’m not 100 percent, and I don’t know when I will be,” Westbeld said, “but it’s definitely something I don’t want to do. I want to graduate — and will graduate on time — and move on to whatever’s next.”

Westbeld is majoring in management consulting, minoring in studio art and pondering a variety of post-college options.

“Hopefully, I’ll still play basketball, live out that dream, if my ankle allows it, but that’s kind of in the air and depends on how the season goes,” Westbeld said of playing professionally. “I might want to do some modeling, and I really love art. I want to do that on the side and figure out maybe something to do with my major.”

All kinds of possibilities, to go with all kinds of unknowns.

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. East Tennessee State (4-1) in Gulf Coast Showcase first round.

WHERE: Germain Arena (8,284), Estero, Fla.

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m. (follows 2-0 St. John’s vs. 2-2 Western Michigan at 11 a.m., 4-0 South Carolina vs. 4-0 Rutgers at 1:30 p.m., and 4-0 South Florida vs. 1-3 Washington State at 5 p.m.); playbacks and semifinals Saturday; playbacks and championship Sunday.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: FloHoops Live ($).

NOTING: Notre Dame enters the Gulf Coast Showcase with 35 straight November wins, its last such loss coming in 2011 when the No. 2 Irish fell to No. 1 Baylor, 94-81, in the Preseason WNIT title game. … No. 6 Notre Dame is joined by No. 17 South Florida and No. 4 defending national champion South Carolina as ranked teams in the eight-school GCS field. ND could face South Florida in the semifinals and South Carolina in the final. … Junior Arike Ogunbowale leads the Irish at 19.0 points per game. Sophomore Jackie Young is coming off a career-high 21 in the 72-67 comeback win at No. 18 Oregon State, including 17 in the second half. She’s averaging 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds. Junior Jessica Shepard is at 14.0 ppg and 10.7 rebounds, freshman Mikayla Vaughn 11.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg in just 18.0 minutes an outing, junior Marina Mabrey 10.3 ppg and 1.7 steals, and grad transfer Lili Thompson 8.3 ppg and 6.3 assists. … ND has never played East Tennessee State (4-1), which has won three straight since losing 87-49 at Tennessee.

QUOTING: “I thought Jackie was exactly what we need her to be (against Oregon State Sunday), and what we thought she could be, and I think she still has more she can do. She’s just kind of scratching the surface of her potential, but she took the game over, took the team and put them on her shoulders and said, ‘I can score.’ ... She also rebounded and defended. She’s doing great things at both ends of the floor.''

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on sophomore guard Jackie Young.