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Surviving October

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UNM’s Sara Halasz hasn’t reached Halloween healthy since 2009

Hot-air balloons, jack-o’-lanterns and season-ending knee injuries.

That’s October to Sara Halasz.

Halasz, a 5-foot-11 guard for the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team, hasn’t been able to fully enjoy the autumn month’s changing colors or colorful Halloween costumes since 2009. That was the last time she got through an October healthy.

“Thanks a lot for bringing it up,” Halasz said with a mock frown. “I’ve been trying not to think about it. Right now I just want to get through October and get to the season.”

Like it or not, this week represents an anniversary of sorts for Halasz. The Lobo Howl, UNM’s annual celebration of the start of basketball practice, is set for tonight at the Pit. The women’s team will take the court at 7 p.m.

Halasz became the unfortunate headliner of last season’s Howl, reinjuring her surgically repaired right knee during an intrasquad scrimmage. The original injury came during a closed preseason scrimmage in October 2010. Both required season-ending anterior cruciate ligament replacement surgery.

Aside from a bulky black knee brace, Halasz appears fully recovered. She aggressively attacked the basket and battled teammates for rebounds during this week’s workouts, displaying the kind of athletic moves that made her an offensive force during her sophomore season (2009-10).

“The knee feels good, 100 percent,” Halasz said. “I’m only in my second week of full contact, but it feels so good to be back on the floor. I’m loving it.”

Two full years of rehab admittedly have been a difficult test for Halasz. The toughest moments, she said, came last October, when a second ACL tear was confirmed.

“The hardest part was just knowing I had to miss another year and go through all the rehab again,” Halasz said. “The physical part’s not that bad. Anyone who’s an athlete can just say, ‘This is what I have to do’ and get through it.

“The hardest part for anyone is mental, just staying positive and focused on playing again.”

For Halasz, it’s been a doubly lengthy process. Her last game was UNM’s second-round WNIT loss to Oregon on March 23, 2010.

“My last game was Amy Beggin’s last game,” Halasz said, referring to the former Lobo standout who is now entering her third year of coaching as UNM’s video coordinator. “Caroline (Durbin) was a freshman. Now she’s a senior.”

It hasn’t been wasted time, however. Halasz has completed a degree in criminology and is taking master’s classes as her basketball career resumes.

“Sara’s worked so hard in rehab and in the classroom,” Lobos coach Yvonne Sanchez said. “I can’t wait to see her back out there in a Lobo uniform.”

Halasz said she’s taken a more patient approach in her second rehab.

“The doctors made me go slower,” she said. “I did all the same things, but last time I tried to be ready in six months. This time it was a year.”

Halasz has been somewhat frustrated by rust on her game, but Sanchez encourages her talented wing to remain patient. Before her second injury, Halasz was named to last season’s Preseason All-MWC Team, so Sanchez is willing to let her redshirt junior round gradually into form.

“Once we get into games and Sara can start playing, she’ll be able to forget about everything else,” Sanchez said. “I truly believe she’s recovered and not going to get injured again. We just have to get her through October.”

READY FOR ACTION: Redshirt freshman Whitney Johnson, who missed all but two games with an ACL tear last season, also is fully cleared and practicing. Junior Deeva Vaughn (concussion symptoms) must wear a padded headband during practice and games but is recovered from the injuries that sidelined her for most of 2011-12.

NONCONTACT HOWL: Sanchez does not plan a repeat of the 2011 Howl, when Halasz’s injury put a damper on things. The Lobo women will not scrimmage during their portion of tonight’s Howl.

“Do you think the fans would mind if we sent the players out in bubble wrap?” Sanchez joked.

In addition to drills and shooting contests, the Lobo women have come up with a surprise for fans, Sanchez said, adding that she’d been sworn to secrecy.

BUMPS AND BRUISES: Several players missed workouts with minor injuries this week but will be ready to participate in the Howl. The exception may be freshman Alexa Chavez, who suffered a concussion in a September car accident. Chavez was able to run sprints this week but has not been cleared for contact.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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