APPLETON, Wis. -- More than 2,100 miles from his Los Angeles home, Emory’s Brett Lake and his family are spending their Memorial Day weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin. Geographically, the distance traveled to reach Appleton is significant, but a diminutive journey in comparison to the physical, mental and emotional journey Lake has endured the past two years.
Lake burst onto the scene as a freshman at Emory two years ago, starting 39 games in the lead off role, hitting .337 with 40 runs and knocking in 19 runs. He led the Eagles with hits (55), stolen bases (25), and multi-hit games (18). He set a UAA record by swiping 11 bases in the conference tournament and helped Emory reach its first NCAA tournament since the 2007 season.While the numbers are staggering for any freshman, Lake had been patellar tendinitis in his knees – a condition commonly referred to as “jumper’s knee.” The patellar tendon connects the kneecap to the shinbone, a pivotal tendon in athletes as this allows one to extend your knee in running and jumping.
“I’ve always had patellar tendinitis since my senior year of high school,” Lake said. “I’ve always been able to play through it. I never missed any games or practices. Just soreness.”
With high expectations heading into his sophomore season, an unexpected injury resulted in a setback for the Emory outfielder.
“Freshman year I had it still but it didn’t really bother me at all,” Lake said. “Then, last year in the fall, I tweaked it pretty badly. I was going for a ball and cutting really fast and had to come back for it, and it was in my left knee.”
Around early November of 2012, Lake opted for PRP (Platelet-Rich-Plasma), which is a popular procedure for tendon injuries, arthritis, ligament and muscle injuries – most notably used by athletes such as Tiger Woods and Rafael Nadal. This would allow him the required three months to heal and be back in time for the 2013 season.
“I let it heal for three months, I came back and I couldn’t run, couldn’t do anything. It completely did not work, it failed,” Lake continued, “So I [thought] I wasn’t going to have any pain again. And I came back and I couldn’t do it. I played like for a month, or something, played like 13 games. I was hitting well, but it just wasn’t me. Just slapping singles and then I just couldn’t deal with the pain anymore and shut it down for a while.”
Typically it would take Lake a day to recover from the soreness, but during his sophomore year it would take up to four or five days to be pain-free. He made a pinch-hit appearance later in the season, but his season was plagued with injury, still managing to steal four bases, hit .341 and score eight runs in just 13 games.
“A lot of people were saying that I would never play again or I wouldn’t be the same and I started to believe it,” Lake said, “I’ve always wanted to play baseball in college, and maybe even the next level and I think I have the ability to, and to hear this news was terrible.”
Following his sophomore season, Lake went home to California and found a nearby physical therapy spot in Woodland Hills which offered a different opinion.
“So I went to [Sports Motion Physical Therapy] and started out with basics, just light squats, light movements and they were a great place,” Lake continued, “they really helped me out and said ‘yeah, you’re definitely going to be able to play again. Just keep on working, keep on doing rehab.’”
Inspired by optimism, confidence and experience working with this injury, Lake continued his work in the fall, continuing to take things light and avoid heavy lifting with his legs. When October’s morning practices came, Lake got back into conditioning, running and sprinting for the first time in half a year.
“Yeah, I was terrified. My knees hurt, but I was also in terrible shape because I didn’t run for six months,” Lake mentioned about returning to the field, “so my hamstring got pulled too and it was hard to come back. But I was always kind of nervous that it would flare up again. There’s always soreness, but for the most part it’s good.”
And his performance has been more than good. At the awards banquet this week in Appleton, Lake was named a D3baseball.com first-team All-American – the fourth first-team All-American in Emory’s history – as a part of his long list of accolades this spring.
Lake was named UAA Co-Player of the Year hitting .430 and leading the nation with 64 RBIs (setting an Emory school record). His 77 hits rank sixth best in the nation and 10 shy of Emory’s school mark set in by Frank Pfister in 2007. Lake also ranks in the top 30 nationally in runs scored (49) and total bases (104).
“I had no idea if I was going to do well, or if I was going to get injured right away, if I was going to be able to get cleats on again,” Lake said on expectations of this season. “I was really nervous at the start of the season, but I know I worked really hard in rehab … and I knew if I was healthy I had the talent to do this well.”
They journey started at home, literally, with Emory opening this season in Los Angeles at Occidental on Feb. 7.
“Everyone could see my knees were shaking and my whole body was shaking, I was wobbling,” Lake tells of his first at bat since the injury. “I think it was a 10-pitch. I battled, kept fouling pitches off, fouling pitches off. My whole lower half was so nervous going to the ball, and then I walked. Thank god. Got the jitters out, next at bat I hit a double and then a single, a single. So I started off the season 3-for-3 and I thought, ‘maybe I can do this.’”
Fast forward to May 25, 2014, Lake leads the Eagles in seven offensive categories and has his team in Appleton at the NCAA Division III national finals. Saturday, Emory sent the defending national champions home with an 8-5 victory. Lake added a pair of hits and runs, knocked in a run, and earned a free pass on a walk. The Eagles have another elimination game Sunday afternoon against Cortland State as the team continues to enjoy each moment of the Appleton experience.
“It’s awesome. Just the whole town,” Lake said. “For people in Appleton, they just love the [national finals]. I don’t know, it’s just awesome. I love being here, playing in a minor league field –and a nice one. Our face is on the scoreboard, our parents came in, it’s an unreal experience.”
Each baseball team seems to always find their unique personality, inside jokes, or gimmicks. Emory noticeably carries around a bush with a sombrero hat – found by Lake on the side of a road.
“I actually found the sombrero, on the side of the road, right off the Emory campus,” Lake said “It’s almost like there’s this fork in the road, the baseball house is to the right and the Chipotle to the left and there’s this voltage box and just a sombrero sitting on top. I drove by it and I told my friend Wes, ‘Wes, we got to get that hat.’ So we got the hat, brought it in the car and brought it to Regionals. No one really wore it, we put it on the bush sometimes, all of a sudden Josh Bokor started wearing it and it’s pretty ridiculous. I don’t know how other teams feel about it.”
While the road to Appleton is a challenge for all, Lake’s road has been anything but smooth. But each time he is presented with a fork in the road, whether it involves fighting through rehab or grabbing a stray sombrero, Lake always chooses the road less traveled.
And that has made all the difference.