COLUMBIA — During the Hickman boys basketball team’s Thursday practice, most of the attention was concentrated on the court, where the varsity and junior varsity teams mixed together for a high-intensity scrimmage.
On the sidelines, though, another piece of the team dribbled back and forth along the length of the gym, dressed in clothes without school colors and sporting a brace on his left knee.
"He's back!" junior guard Mason Murray shouts. "I'll see you Tuesday, 'Dre!"
In October, it looked like senior forward Deandre Pennington’s season – and career at Hickman – was finished because of a knee injury. But he has come back strong and earlier than expected, ready to give an already formidable Kewpies squad extra depth in the home stretch run.
It only takes a few minutes of watching a Hickman practice to see the team doesn’t have many holes. Gangly, athletic sophomore guard Jimmy Whitt flips no-look passes one after the other, senior forward Cecil Williams throws down thunderous dunks, and junior guard Chris Clark showcases his lightning-quick cuts.
Coming into the season, Pennington was set to be a part of that, giving the team a reliable defensive and rebounding presence and playing the role of an ‘energy guy.’
During a team workout in September, Pennington went up for a layup. When he came down, he felt a pop.
He said the injury wasn’t noticeably painful at first and “it just felt weird,” but that changed when he tried to walk on it. Hickman coach David Johnson held out hope at the time that it was “just a little strain.”
But when Pennington went to the doctor two days later, the prognosis was much grimmer. The MRI showed a torn ACL and a partially torn meniscus. He called his coaches afterwards to tell them.
Doctors put a time frame of “six to nine months” on Pennington’s recovery and ruled out playing his senior season.
“It’s a feeling you really couldn’t explain, because something (basketball) I’ve done for so long was taken away from me,” Pennington said.
The game he played since the age of six was suddenly almost out of reach. After having surgery on his knee, Pennington was rehabbing within a week, working on improving strength in his quads and lifting weights to preserve his strength.
Though he felt discouraged at times during the rehab process, Pennington found support from his coaches, family and team. He drew inspiration from athletes who sustained similar injuries, such as Missouri’s Laurence Bowers and the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson. He updated people on his status in person on a near-daily basis, attending practice and closely involving himself with the team.
“I thought he really took a big (role) with our younger guys, as far as how to practice and what they need to do in practice and stuff like that and everything,” Johnson said.
Pennington felt more than physical pain while he was out. He wasn’t able to take the court in what has been a banner year for the Kewpies.
He struggled to find the words for what he felt when they played Rock Bridge in the first game in their new gym, saying he felt a “big sadness.”
But when the Kewpies topped the Bruins for their first win against their crosstown rivals in more than 20 games, he joined in the revelry just like the rest of his teammates.
“It wasn’t that ‘They won,’ it was ‘We won,’” he said.
Trainers remarked during Pennington’s rehab that he was “ahead of schedule,” and continuously drilled and worked him out. About two weeks ago, he began to feel like his knee was in pre-injury form.
“It really felt like I didn’t even have a knee brace on or anything,” he said. “Like, it just felt comfortable.”
Johnson would see Pennington do workouts and run with the ball and saw progress in what the senior was doing.
“He always looked like ‘Dre to me, ” Johnson said.
Johnson said Stephanie West, Hickman’s trainer, corroborated his thoughts on Wednesday when she raised to him the possibility of Pennington’s return. He was sprinting comfortably by that time.
Pennington needs to be cleared by medical staff before he can play, but he hopes that will happen in “a week or so, maybe.” His return won’t significantly affect the Kewpies’ style of play, but will give them valuable additional depth.
Johnson said there have been certain situations, such as when the team has had problems with fouls, where he wishes he had Pennington as a option off the bench, but also said players like freshman forward Jerrion Nelson have grown and filled the void.
At the end of Thursday’s practice, Pennington cut short his personal drills and joined the team as they circled up at midcourt. He stood on the furthest edge of the circle on the opposite side of most of the varsity squad.
Pennington is still on the outside looking in, but it probably won’t be for long.