Injured Raven finds time to reinvent herself

Nicole Leonard was among the hoards of Canyon Crest Academy students who last winter filled the bleachers cheering the girls’ basketball team through an improbable playoff journey that culminated with a San Diego Section Div. III championship.

Leonard, then a junior, would yell herself hoarse at the games. But by the time she got home, she was nearly in tears.

Leonard had been a big part of the Ravens’ upstart program her first two years at CCA, making the varsity team as a freshman and then becoming the only sophomore named a Coastal South League first-team selection.

But a back injury threw the rising star’s career trajectory off course, relegating her to spectator status last winter when the Ravens won their first section title in any sport in school history.

Leonard’s history of back problems goes back to middle school. She had to wear a brace after being diagnosed with a stress fracture on her L-5 vertebrae in eighth grade. She played through the pain her first two years at CCA. But by the end of her sophomore year, the pain was too much.

“I was really excited for my teammates, but then I’d go home and I’d be like, ‘this stinks,’” Leonard said. “I’ve worked so hard. I deserve to be a part of this. I’ve literally broken my back for the team.”

Leonard’s frustration fueled her determination. And after a year off, Leonard is making a comeback.

Although her injury hasn’t fully healed, and perhaps never will, she has returned to the Ravens for her senior year to help her team defend its title.

A post player throughout her career, Leonard is transitioning to playing guard, a position that figures to protect her from the potentially hazardous physical contact under the basket.

Although, on doctor’s orders, Leonard is for now limited to playing or practicing just three times a week. She’s adjusted nicely to her new role, CCA coach Terry Ryan said.

“She’s shown good quickness and athleticism and she makes great decisions,” Ryan said. “She’s one of our best passers, and at (5-foot-10) she’s really tough to guard.”

Determined to give basketball another chance, Leonard started a grueling rehab program that includes core conditioning, strength training, massage pressure-point treatments and “lots of Advil.”

Moving to guard also filled a vital need for CCA, which graduated backcourt standouts Alisha Eckberg, who now plays at San Jose State, and Meghan Brown.

Leonard said transitioning to playing guard has been a challenge.

“It’s exciting to have the chance to get the ball more and pass and set up plays,” she said.

“It’s the only way I could save my back.”

Transitioning to guard may have also saved her career.

Leonard averaged 10.6 points and 9.7 rebounds — numbers in the intensely competitive Coastal South League attract the attention of Div. I college scouts.

She’s still mulling the possibility of playing college ball, but acknowledged that her health is a concern. Doctors told her after her sophomore year that she risked damaging other vertebrae if she didn’t give herself adequate rest.

Leonard, an academic standout with a 4.25 cumulative GPA, is applying to several Ivy League schools, and said she’d consider playing if there’s a good fit, and she can stay healthy. She plans to major in International Relations.

“To go to an Ivy League school and play would be an ideal situation if I’m healthy enough, but I’ll have to see where I get in and how my back’s doing,” she said.

Leonard acknowledged that there were some tough moments away from basketball last year, especially not knowing if she’d ever play again competitively.

She says the year off wasn’t all bad though. She said she developed some new interests, including playing drums, which landed her in a classic rock band at school. She also worked as an assistant coach at Earl Warren Middle School with Nadia Farjood, a friend who played at Torrey Pines and now attends Harvard.

Leonard said missing a year has also given her a greater appreciation for her health, and being able to play now that she’s back on the court.

She said she’s always tried to maintain a positive outlook.

“The good things are that I started playing drums and got into coaching, which I love and I plan to do again next year, so there’ve been some positives.