Amy Hughes, NCAA.com
When head coach Sue Guevara came to Central Michigan in 2007, it didn’t take long to realize that then-sophomore Kaihla Szunko was going to be a critical player for the Chippewas in Guevara’s first season.
Until she tore her ACL in a preseason game and missed that season with a medical redshirt.
After Brandie Baker won the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year award at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season, Guevara was excited for the immediate future of the Chippewas. And then Baker tore an ACL during preseason workouts.
Both Szunko and Baker are healthy once again, and are leading Central Michigan through the program’s first season in a newly renovated McGuirk Arena on the school’s Mt. Pleasant, Mich., campus. Szunko, now a senior forward, currently ranks 11th in Division I in rebounding, 19th in steals, 22nd in field goal percentage and fourth with 12 double-doubles. Baker, now a sophomore point guard, is 36th in the country in scoring and 34th in assist-to-turnover ratio. (all rankings through games of January 23)
“I think both of them learned a lot during the year they were out,” said Guevara. “They’re a year older, and I think that because they didn’t get to travel all the time it makes them a little hungrier to get into the action and be part of the team.”
“There was a lot of rehab,” said Baker. “It was very hard and very frustrating to come in every day, sometimes twice a day, to keep doing rehab.”
“I actually think my knee injury was kind of a blessing in disguise,” said Szunko. “My freshman year, I didn’t really play much. I wasn’t undersized, but I was a little bit scrawny and didn’t have a lot of muscle.”
Szunko and Baker actually have more in common than just their knee injuries. Both have sisters that played with the Chippewas. And both of their sisters also suffered torn ACLs.
Szunko’s older sister, Brittany, suffered her knee injury during Kaihla’s first year at CMU. And when Brittany was able to return to the lineup, Kaihla was the one living in the training room.
“We never got to play together,” said Kaihla. “It was a bummer because I really wanted to come to college and play with her. That was one of my dreams. Growing up playing with and against each other, we could feed off of each other very well. But this is the way it was supposed to be. I had watched my sister with her injury and saw her go through all the rehab, so when I had to go through it, I knew that nothing would hold me back.”
Baker’s older sister, Chippewa senior Laura, suffered her injury during preseason workouts for this season, but Laura was there for Brandie after her injury in the fall of 2009.
“She was very helpful to me,” said Brandie. “She really encouraged me when I just didn’t feel like going to rehab, or I was just in a bad mood. She helped a lot.”
Kaihla Szunko and Brandie Baker both credit their time away from the game for their current high level of play.
“I got to watch a lot of girls on the floor,” said Szunko. “It was a time to grow for me, mentally and physically.”
Their coach agrees.
“They [come back] a year older,” said Guevara. “They had a scouting job the year they didn’t play, so they get a feel of what they’re up against. Both of them understand their roles on this team. I’ve had one-on-ones with ‘Szunk’ and Brandie about being the leaders that they need to be. As the point guard, Brandie is the quarterback. When this team isn’t running right, it’s on her to do what we needs to be done to get this team running on all cylinders. With ‘Szunk,’ I can’t begin to tell you how much more vocal she has gotten since that first day, and how much more she has really matured.”
The team opened its 2010-11 season with both Szunko and Baker ready to play, but those games would take place away from Mt. Pleasant, Mich. CMU was in the process of a major renovation of the CMU Events Center. The team traveled to Winthrop (Rock Hill, S.C.), Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa), Northern Arizona (Flagstaff, Ariz.) and Evansville (Evansville, Ind.) for two-game tournaments, plus a single-game at Northwestern, playing nine total games before becoming the first CMU squad to post a victory in the freshly named McGuirk Arena, an 82-66 victory against Ole Miss on Saturday, December 18, 2010.
“It was nice to be the first team to win in McGuirk,” said Baker, who is working to regain the form that earned her 2009 MAC Freshman of the Year honors. “[Her knee] comes into my mind once in a while, but when I’m playing, I don’t think about it much. I play as hard as I can on my knee and I know it’s going to be all right. It’s strong enough to keep me up. I come out, play as hard as I can and help my team as much as I possibly can.”
“It’s great having Brandie back,” said Szunko. “She has so much size for a point guard and it’s a hard match-up for a lot of teams. She can see the floor so well, and she can get in the paint.”
“She just brings a versatility to this team,” said Guevara of Baker. “I could play her one-through-five if I needed to. She’s a freight train going to the basket, she’s a hard worker, tough defender, good rebounder, shoots the 3 and gets to the basket. She’s a big-time competitor.”
With nine regular seasons games yet to play, five of them at McGuirk, Guevara’s Chippewas are savoring the opportunities of the stretch run with Szunko and Baker both back in the lineup following their knee surgeries.
“We’re a pretty hard-nosed team,” said Szunko. “We go hard in every game no matter what the situation is. We’re on the floor, shoot the 3, that’s our game. We really feed off each other and get up and down. We run the floor. We’re a fast-paced team, high-octane offense and we make it happen.”
“This year’s team is, I think, a very special team,” said Guevara. “We’re still evolving. This team is very competitive, we have a lot of different weapons. I think we still have room to grow in between our ears to get a little tougher, believe it or not when the chips are down. To understand and to really buckle down on the defensive end of the floor when the offense and the ball isn’t going through the net. I think we’re still learning what we need to do to do because we’re just not there yet.”