Because of the severity of the back injury she suffered on Nov. 25, it was fair to wonder if Claire Haynes had played her last basketball game in a Brookfield Central uniform.
But the determined senior forward returned to the court almost exactly two months to the day after she went down with a serious back injury. The return of Haynes seemed to spark the Lancers, as they grabbed wins over two teams that entered the week ahead of them in the standings.
A 27-point outburst by Caroline Busch lifted Brookfield Central to a 60-48 victory over Wauwatosa East on Jan. 24, snapping the Red Raiders' seven-game winning streak. The Lancers followed up by taking down Divine Savior Holy Angels, 48-43, on Jan 27.
"Having Claire back on the court is a huge spark for our girls," Brookfield Central coach Mallory Liebl said. "Just her presence alone is really a game changer for our team. She brings the vocal leadership our team needs and with her out there; it's really like having a coach on the floor. She knows the game so well. She helps bring stability on the court, which helped us keep our composure when Tosa East and DSHA went on runs."
Haynes suffered two fractured transverse processes, the bones that protrude from the vertebrae, against Germantown on Nov. 25. It was unclear at the time if the senior would be able to return this season, but the return of a first-team All-Greater Metro player and leader make the Lancers a dangerous team down the stretch.
"I can't say enough good things about Claire Haynes," Liebl said. "Two months ago, I never thought she would be at the point she is today. It's really incredible that she is back and playing, but knowing Claire, I knew that if there was a possibility for her to make a return to the court, she would do whatever it took.
"I am beyond proud of her for the work she has put in during the recovery process from such a serious injury. It speaks volumes about the type of person she is. Claire is the epitome of hard work and high character."
Brookfield Central jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, but Tosa East fought back and was able to close the gap to 29-26 at halftime.
Busch took over after the break, scoring 20 of her 27 points in the second half. The Lancers held the Red Raiders to just 6 of 28 shooting after halftime and made free throws down the stretch to pull away.
"Caroline shot the ball really well against Tosa East," Liebl said. "She was disappointed with the way she played in our game at Menomonee Falls, and she used that as motivation to play better. After her first few shots went in, she got into her zone and was able to knock down shots within our offense, which was a big momentum provider for us.
"We defended much better in the second half, and I told the girls at halftime if we can get stops on defense, we will be able to capitalize on the offensive end, and the girls did a really good job of doing exactly that."
Senior forward Leah Swenson finished with 9 points, while Haynes and junior forward Kristin Gaulke each added seven points.
Brookfield Central led over DSHA with 2:11 remaining until halftime, 25-16, but the Dashers scored the final 5 points of the first half to pull to within 25-21.
After taking a 35-34 lead with 8:25 to play, the Lancers scored just 2 points over the next 4 minutes, 25 seconds before Busch connected on a pair of free throws to even the score at 39-39 with 3:50 remaining.
DSHA committed a turnover with Brookfield Central up, 44-42, with 1:05 left. Amanda Miller split a pair of free throws with 41.2 seconds remaining. Ovi Young drew a foul on the other end but missed both free throws. The Dashers got the offensive rebound but committed a double-dribble violation with 28.6 seconds to play. Miller again connected on 1 of 2 free throws, putting the Lancers in front, 46-42.
After Young split free throws, Busch put the game away by hitting two foul shots to give Brookfield Central a 48-43 lead with 10.4 seconds remaining. Swenson led the Lancers with 13 points, while Busch scored 9 points and Anna Mortag added 8 points.
"Our philosophies are a lot alike," Liebl said. "We are very similar in how we play on offense and defense, which always leads to a solid game by both teams. I thought one of the biggest keys for us was that we were able to sustain their runs. We missed some easy opportunities to score and give us a little bit of breathing room, but our girls just kept battling until the end. We shared the ball well on offense and got a lot of girls scoring. We rebounded well and did a good job of not giving them second chance opportunities.
"Leah Swenson stepped up big time with by far her best game of her career at Brookfield Central. She's becoming more comfortable in our system, and that's allowed her to give us a much-needed spark."
The two wins moved the Lancers to 7-7 overall and into a third-place tie in the Greater Metro Conference with Wauwatosa East at 5-4.
Brookfield Central was scheduled to play at West Allis Central (2-14 overall, 0-9 Greater Metro) on Jan. 31. The Lancers will return home to face West Allis Hale (10-7, 3-6) on Feb. 3.
"We are definitely taking steps in the right direction, and it couldn't be coming at a better time," Liebl said. "Our focus all season has been to go one day at a time and stay in the present moment. It says a lot about our girls to trust the process and keep working to get better every day."