November 8, 2012 10:13:04 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The question is standard for many student-athletes in Division I programs.
But Darriel Gaynor hasn't followed the same path as her peers, so to understand how Gaynor has made it to her senior season at Mississippi State University, it is illuminating to look back at her journey and to see how that trip has shaped her.
As a freshman at the University of Oregon, Gaynor was asked to answer 25 questions as part of her biography. Nicknamed "Dee," Gaynor was asked, "Ten years from now I will be ... " Her answer -- "still playing basketball, hopefully professionally -- reflected the aggressiveness, hope, and optimism of a player who had never suffered a serious injury or had only positive experiences with basketball.
Three years later, Gaynor has found her way back to the beaten path. The road has been fraught with a change of schools, a major injury, a second surgery to aid her recovery, disappointment, frustration, self-doubt, and plenty of time on the sidelines.
This season, Gaynor plans to write an ending that befits the optimism she had when she was a freshman. Gaynor, the lone senior on the 2012-13 MSU women's basketball team, will lead the team against the University of Houston at 7 p.m. Friday in its season opener at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I am definitely a different player," Gaynor said. "The roles I have played on these past two teams, I haven't been the go-to player and haven't really seen a lot of action, so when I got in I had to play my role, which was to shoot. I can admit I am not the same competitive player I used to be. I am not as aggressive as I used to be, but I am getting that back under coach (Vic) Schaefer. He is pushing me all summer to get my aggressiveness back and to attack."
Gaynor's re-emergence as an attacking shooter and fearless defender is just part of the story. The 5-foot-6 guard from Las Vegas arrived at Oregon as a three-time Class 4A state champion from Bishop Gorman High School. She was named a Preseason All-America honorable mention by Sporting News entering her senior season.
"Her first step was lightning quick," Bishop Gorman girls basketball coach Sheryl Krmpotich said. "She is an explosive type of player and a fierce competitor who hates to lose. We won three championships because of her defense, her shot, and her ability to make everyone better. Her nickname was the engine of the team because she made our team go."
Gaynor experienced the other side of the game when she was part of a 9-21 season in her first year at Oregon. That finish led to a coaching change at Oregon before she opted to transfer to Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas.
Gaynor thought she would get her career back on track by playing one year of junior college basketball and return to the Division I level with a vengeance.
Trinity Valley C.C. coach Elena Lovato was confident Gaynor was going to be a solid floor leader who would lead her team on both ends of the floor.
"She was a great point guard who was very feisty on the defensive end," Lovato said. "I anticipated her being our defensive specialist. I think if we would have had her we would have made another run at a national championship."
That plan lasted five minutes in the team's first jamboree game. Gaynor said she went to contest a shot and came down wrong and felt her anterior cruciate ligament pop. She felt her knee go out but thought it was just a tweak. She left the game and then returned to hit a 3-pointer. When she went back down the floor and tried to go over a screen, she felt her knee again, which is when she knew something was wrong. On the other end, she tried to do an in-and-out move and collapsed.
"You get that, 'Why me feeling', or what is next?' " Gaynor said. "I actually had a lot of college offers. I was top six in the recruiting service and I was the starting point guard there, and doing really well there."
The injury cost Gaynor many of her potential college scholarship offers. But she said she still received interest from the University of Alabama, the University of Pittsburgh, Fresno State University, and MSU. She said she liked her visit to Alabama and was going to commit to the Crimson Tide before she visited MSU.
"I was hungry to get back to the Division I level from junior college," Gaynor said. "There were no confidence issues. I felt like I was on the top of the world. I was in the best shape of my life, my leadership skills were great, and I was leading a bunch of young girls that was coming in and who were hungry like me. Coach Fanning could see that when she recruited me. I worked hard, I was always leading in the front and running, and I never was in pain. I was always in tip-top shape. I was always ready. I competed, I was aggressive, I was fast."
That good feeling didn't last.
Gaynor needed surgery on her knee to correct the first ACL surgery prior to taking the court at MSU. She missed the team's first eight games in 2010-11, and wound up averaging only 10.3 minutes and 2.1 points in 22 games.
As a junior, Gaynor appeared in 27 games and averaged 1.7 points in 8.4 minutes. She scored only 47 points and didn't reach double figures in a game.
Not only was Gaynor struggling with a move from point guard to shooting guard, she questioned whether she could play in the Southeastern Conference.
"When you get hurt you get kind of timid when you play," Gaynor said. "You don't want to get hurt again. Some moves you used to do before you really can't do anymore because you're afraid you might hurt your knee again."
Lovato stayed in touch with Gaynor, who she nicknamed "Little coach G" because Gaynor served as a mentor to her teammates after she was injured, and could tell from talking with her and reading text messages and posts on Facebook that Gaynor was having a hard time.
"She was down and was not the same," Lovato said. "She said, 'I don't know what it is but I have lost my swagger.' I told her you need to keep your confidence high because you never will attain your goals if you doubt yourself."
Gaynor said she is regaining that confidence thanks to Schaefer and the rest of the MSU coaching staff. She is playing without the bulky knee brace, and even though she said she still weighs 140 pounds, she said she feels "lighter" on her feet and a little quicker. She continues to do strength training in the weight room to keep her right leg equal to her left leg. Other than that, Gaynor said there isn't anything different from last season.
Still, she looked more aggressive and assertive on the court in the team's Maroon-White scrimmage and showed an attacking mind-set in an exhibition game against Shorter.
"It is having confidence in myself," Gaynor said. "Coach gives me and (freshman guard) Jessy Ward the green light to shoot the ball. He said if you come into work every day and shoot these hots and prove you can make them in the game, you can shoot whenever you are open. Knowing that I have that privilege to shoot the ball whenever I am open gives me more confidence to shoot it."
Gaynor said she also has the confidence point guards Katia May and Jerica James will be able to find her in the right spots for her to score. She said that role is a big step from last season when she was asked to be a stationary shooter. This year, she said she will be expected to create her shots and to shoot when she is open. She feels she is ready to take on that role.
Schaefer, whose nickname is the "Secretary of Defense," hopes Gaynor will provide a defensive presence. He also hopes she will regain her shooting touch and be a go-to scorer for an inexperienced team.
"She is a fifth-year senior, so you hope she has some experience," Schaefer said. "She certainly has had some hardships in her career with injuries, but, hopefully, the senior year will be fun for her. We always talk all the time, do you want to impress somebody or you want to impact them? She has a chance as a fifth-year senior to impact a program that, hopefully, in 10 years she looks back on and sees we're having great success and goes, 'You know, I was part of that.'
"I really need for her to try to be one of our better shooters. That is what she brings to the table. I just need that consistency from her. She does have a pretty good understanding defensively about some things we like to do. She has a chance to make an impact on this team."
Gaynor plans to make the most of her senior season. She is completing work on her clinical exercise physiology degree. She hopes to become a physician's assistant, which would mean graduate school and medical school also would be in her plans. Lovato said she wouldn't be surprised if Gaynor decided to become a coach.
Either way, Gaynor would gladly put those plans on hold if she could continue to play basketball. She said her goal is to have fun and to do everything she can to get back to the aggressive mind-set she played with in high school and before she was hurt. If that happens, Gaynor's dream of playing professional basketball might lead her on a different road, one she likely thought was closed after three years of inactivity and disappointment.
"I am hungry," Gaynor said. "My whole college experience I have been on a losing team. This year, I want to make a change and help the team get to the Sweet 16, to the NCAA tournament, not be last in the SEC, WNIT. Anything. I want to end on a good note.
"This team is different from teams I have played on. Everyone is on the same page, everyone is hungry, everyone wants to win. He brings the best out of us, coach Schaefer and the rest of the coaching staff. You either eat or you get eaten in practice. You have to be hungry at practice with him. He demands it, and I think I am slowly getting it back -- slowly but surely.
"There is no room to be timid anymore. I hope coach will look at me as a player who can lead this team. That is what I have been trying to prove to him on the court. ... I think if I have a great year that dream can definitely become a reality. I still think about (playing professional basketball). I am never going to let it go. I am always going to keep trying as much as I can and try to live my dream out and play as long as I can until these old knees fall off."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.