The pain in Creighton guard Carli Tritz's right knee provides a constant reminder that aging is the greatest enemy of any athlete.
That can be a sobering lesson when you're only 20.
“It sucks that I can't do things that I could do less than a year ago,'' Tritz said. “I know I'm not playing like I used to, but it's not totally my fault.”
Blame it on an arthritic knee condition to which many a 60-year-old can relate. Years of playing a variety of sports have left Tritz without any of the natural cushioning tissues in the knee. It's bone on bone, and that has robbed the junior from Sioux City, Iowa, of some of the athleticism that once was a huge part of her game.
She can still play, but expecting her to perform at the level she did her first two seasons at Creighton, when the former Miss Iowa Basketball earned all-conference recognition and was the team's most dynamic scorer, might be unrealistic.
“I think Carli has come to the realization that it's never going to be quite what it was,'' Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. “As a coaching staff, we had to do the same.”
Tritz had surgery to repair a meniscus tear in October 2011. She wasn't full speed at the start of last season but gradually improved to the point that she was the Bluejays' go-to player. Tritz led the team in assists and steals for the second straight season while improving her scoring average from 11.4 to 14.4 points per game.
The Missouri Valley honored Tritz with first-team all-conference recognition. She was named the most valuable player of the Valley tournament, leading Creighton to the championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament by averaging 19.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.3 steals in three games.
Big things were expected this season. She was selected the Valley's preseason player of year and earned a spot on the all-conference team. What voters didn't know was that Tritz's knee condition had worsened over the offseason.
Hours of treatment failed to bring her any lasting relief. She was told additional surgery was not an option.
“Doc says the next surgery will fix my knee so that I can live the rest of my life comfortably,'' she said. “It's not going to fix it to allow me to play more.''
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Adding to Tritz's misery as Creighton prepared for this season was that she developed a stress fracture in her back. The two injuries forced her to miss long stretches of preseason practice. It was apparent when the Bluejays opened the season in November that she wasn't full speed.
Tritz, like her coaches, figured that was only a temporary condition. She expected to play her way back into shape and return to being the explosive player she's always been.
That thinking changed a month into the season. Tritz needed to have the knee drained and get a cortisone shot to help relieve the pain.
“She probably had her best back-to-back games when we were in Cancun, which wasn't that long after the shot,'' Flanery said. “She's slowed down a little as the shot started to wear off. When we played Wichita (in mid-January), I knew she was struggling.”
Flanery and Creighton's trainers try to manage Tritz's condition. She does not practice the day before games, other than some light shooting. In addition to the mandatory day off all players get each week, Tritz gets a second.
“What's frustrating is that this isn't one of those injuries that gets better,'' she said. “It just gets worse. It's not an ACL, where I could actually come back stronger after rehab.
“It's annoying, but I think it's made me stronger. I know my knee is going to get a little worse every day, but that doesn't mean I have to get worse.''
Heading into Thursday's home game against Missouri State, Tritz is fifth on the team in scoring with a 7.9 average. She still leads the Bluejays in assists and steals, but for the first time in 76 games, Tritz was not in the starting lineup when Creighton played Sunday at Indiana State.
She's trying to make adjustments to her game, focusing more on playmaking and her 3-point shooting. She's waiting for next month, when she can receive a second cortisone shot.
“It's clear that she can't be as consistently explosive as she's been, and she can't do the same things defensively as in the past,'' Flanery said. “But Carli is a smart player. She sees the game well. She knows where the ball needs to go.”
There is an option that could bring Tritz some relief from the jabbing pain, but it's one she refuses to even consider at this point.
“It would be easy for me to say it hurts too bad and I'm done,'' Tritz said. “But I've never been the kind of person that takes the easy route. The way I see it, I'm going to need a knee replacement someday, so I might as well just ride this out as long as I can.”
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