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Jeff Kolpack, Published August 20 2012

Bison teammates face physical challenge of ACL rehabilitation


The world of college basketball can get loud sometimes, and in the case of North Dakota State women’s basketball players Katie Birkel and Jamie Van Kirk, it happened in several states last season.

Whether at home against South Dakota State or on the road at the University of Minnesota, the fans were noticeable.

A few months after the season, with a basketball resting just a few feet away, Van Kirk was doing her thing in a different kind of setting – the quiet rehabilitation facility at ProRehab Center in south Fargo.

It was Van Kirk’s seventh week into rehab with physical therapist Tom Baumgartner. The Fargo Shanley graduate has been in the field for 16 years in a profession that is continually evolving.

“Put it this way,” Baumgartner said. “When I first started, the ACL on some procedures would require a night or two in the hospital. We have a better understanding of what we can do.”

What Van Kirk was doing on this day was a series of exercises designed to strengthen the core of her body and work on range of motion of her knee. This is not summer camp.

“We don’t mess around here,” Van Kirk says.

She goes through a hamstring stretch with two weights. She hops on the “Free Motion vibration trainer” that has taken off since being introduced to the rehab process around 2000.

Van Kirk does trunk twists with a medicine ball that requires top-notch effort. She stands on a foam rolling ball to work on balance and stability.

From there it was on to a weight machine, where Van Kirk, with a belt around her waist, walked forward and then backward pulling the resistance. It was a good time for more conversation between the therapist and patient and Van Kirk’s impending visit to her surgeon in Lincoln, Neb.

“You can ask him about shooting and running,” Baumgartner said, who then gives a warning about shooting.

There are two rules: no cutting and if you shoot, you need somebody to rebound the ball so as to avoid any cutting in going after the ball.

“We’re not there yet,” Baumgartner says.

Van Kirk finishes the workout walking backward on a treadmill for eight minutes and forward for 10 minutes.

“She’s rehabbing faster than any athlete I’ve ever had,” Baumgartner said. “Some of that is genetics. It’s hard work. It’s attitude. She’s in good shape, eats well and all that stuff.”

That also best describes the senior Birkel, who like Van Kirk is a starting guard coming back from ACL surgery.

Unlike Van Kirk, Birkel was over two-thirds of the way through her rehabilitation from an injury that happened during preseason practice.

It was the last day of final exams in early May and Birkel and NDSU women’s basketball trainer George Okamatsu had a section of the Bison Sports Arena to themselves.

It was the last workout for Birkel before she was scheduled to return to Lincoln to see her surgeon. Both Van Kirk and Birkel chose the same hospital in Lincoln for their procedures but with different physicians.

“I’m sure she will be cleared to play,” Okamatsu said. “I’m not 100 percent sure, but 95 percent sure.”

Okamatsu shows a chart used to evaluate Birkel’s progress. Then the workout starts with single leg jumps and hops at a 45 degree angle.

Asked if he can tell Birkel underwent knee surgery, Okamatsu says, “I can’t tell. I could a month ago when she was still weaker when landing on one leg. Now she has that strength back.”

Birkel goes through a series of cone drills that render her dizzy. Workouts that once took an hour and a half are now less than an hour.

“This stuff goes a lot faster now because I can move,” she says.

Just over three weeks later, both players were back at the BSA for NDSU’s annual girls basketball camp. They both had returned from seeing their physicians in Lincoln and the question didn’t even have to be asked.

They both were cleared for the next rehab step. For Birkel, that was the OK to begin playing full-court basketball. For Van Kirk, that meant she could begin running and shoot a basketball.

“Almost everything except cutting,” she said. “It was a short visit, I was maybe there 10 minutes. I was excited to be able to run because it was getting old doing the same rehab stuff over and over. It will be nice to do something other than sit on the sidelines and watch.”

Birkel took a Cybex test to measure strength on her return visit. She can still tell the muscles around the knee are smaller on one, and she also admitted to feeling a little nervous about playing a scrimmage the following day.

“It will be my first time in six months, so it will be a little nerve wracking,” she said.

Nerves aside, the overriding news is Birkel will be 100 percent when the Bison begin practice in the fall. Van Kirk, however, will be cutting it a little closer.

She’ll have another checkup with her doctor later this month.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia