COLUMBIA — Hannah Dressler, the co-captain of the Rock Bridge girls basketball team, stood at center court during Tuesday's practice, a smile plastered on her face, calling out encouragement as her teammates put up shots all around her.
When Dressler slowly ambled to the far corner of Rock Bridge's gym to retrieve a stray ball, her progress was slowed by a noticeable limp. She still hasn't gotten used to the cumbersome brace on her right knee, but it's going to be there for a while.
From this scene, it's hard to peg Dressler as the "Rock of Rock Bridge," as Bruins coach Jill Nagel describes her.
But the senior has quads that resemble a small tree trunk and has squatted 350 pounds in the weight room. At 6 feet she has posed matchup nightmares for every team that has played the Bruins. Dressler's imposing figure proved too much to overcome last spring when she helped lead a young Rock Bridge squad to a Class 5 state title over Blue Springs.
With four starters back and Dressler's very own version of elbow grease in the post, the Bruins were once again favored to win a championship entering this season. Rock Bridge may still defend its state title, but if they are to do so, it'll be with Dressler on the bench.
Fittingly, the injury happened while Dressler was chasing a loose ball.
"I felt a pop in my right knee right away," said Dressler describing the sequence that sidelined her in a Jan. 23 game at rival Hickman High School. "I wasn't really sure what had happened, but my right leg was locked in and I couldn't get it out of the bent position."
Nagel said her heart sunk as she listened to her senior leader crying out in pain next to the scoring table. At first, the coach, who has guided the Bruins to two state titles, held out hope it might be a severe ankle injury.
"The first thing she told me was she'd felt a pop," said Nagel about the moments following Dressler's injury. "I knew immediately it was her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) at that point."
Dressler's MRI confirmed Nagel's worst fears: The senior had suffered a torn ACL, a partially torn meniscus in her knee, and a sprained MCL. Dressler's heralded playing career at Rock Bridge was finished prematurely.
"That was one of the lowest points of my coaching career because that's a senior that's sold out for our program," an emotional Nagel said. "Anything we ever needed, she was willing to do. That's not how your senior year's supposed to end."
And so Dressler has had to summon a different kind of strength than the kind she's known for, the kind that helped her snag a game-high 14 rebounds against Blue Springs' four-star recruit Karyla Middlebrook and others in last season's title game.
"My initial reaction was overwhelming sadness," said Dressler about the malaise she felt during the days that followed her injury.
With the help of an overwhelming support system, the senior has started moving on from the pain. Teammates, coaches and "everyone in Columbia" has offered up condolences and support in the aftermath, helping Dressler to find an inner-strength of her own in the process. Even players from rival Hickman have offered advice and encouragement to Dressler.
"A couple of them (Hickman players) have already torn their ACLs, and let me know what would happen (with the rehabilitation process)," Dressler said.
Bruins junior Audrey Holt went so far as to put "playing for Hannah" on her shoes, and senior point guard Makenzie Skrabal, who has played with Dressler since the fourth grade, admitted that the team had "a moment" in the locker room following the loss of Dressler.
"Coach Nagel talked about Hannah and everything she meant to the team and everybody started to cry," said Skrabal about the moments following the Bruins' win over Hickman. "It was just emotional because everybody knew it was a big loss."
As Dressler bides her time until she can undergo surgery on her ACL (the senior must wait three to four more weeks until her sprained MCL heals), her basketball-loving family has provided her with a safe haven for escape.
Father Mark Dressler, who starred at Missouri more than 30 years ago, brother Jordan Dressler, the senior star for this season's undefeated Columbia College men's team, and older sister Ashley Dressler, who played for Rock Bridge before graduating as a four-year player for McKendree University in Illinois last year, have surrounded the youngest Dressler with love and understanding.
"My sister checks up on me, and my brother has been home and he always asks how I'm doing," Hannah Dressler said. "My parents have been so supportive through this."
While Dressler's time as a player at Rock Bridge has ended, the senior has provided leadership and encouragement for her teammates from the bench. Senior Kennedy Smith has assumed most of Dressler's playing time and has stepped up in her absence, helping lead the Bruins to a 15-point win over top-ranked St. Joseph's Academy in last week's Webster Winter Challenge.
In practice and during games, Dressler offers advice to Smith and others, urging them to hustle, dive on the floor and go after the 50/50 balls she loved to go for. Dressler has started seeing things she never saw when she was on the court.
"It's really cool seeing it from a different perspective," Dressler said. "Being on the bench, you see a lot of opportunities that you don't normally see."
While Dressler has embraced her newfound role as an adviser and bench leader, her days of wearing a jersey aren't over just yet. After a grueling recruiting process, Dressler committed to play for Drury University next fall, a Division II program in Springfield, Mo.
"I have a good relationship with the coaches down there and I'll be back by then," Dressler said.
Until then, she hopes to keep using her strength to push the Bruins forward in pursuit of another state title. Her coach knows she'll be there for the team in whatever role possible.
"Hannah's one of the great kids that's gone through this program," said Nagel about her beloved senior. "Even if she's not out on the floor, she's still gonna be a part of it."