Hunter Hilgeman showed lingering effects of a knee injury suffered nearly 17 months ago as he sat in the wrestling room at Bexley High School.
The senior was rubbing his left knee as he discussed the torn ACL and meniscus that forced him to miss his junior wrestling and lacrosse seasons. However, the 160-pounder is pleased with the progress he has made no matter how slowly the process has gone.
"It still hurts from time to time. I still have to get stronger," he said. "It hurts when the weather changes, just like anyone who has knee surgery."
During the season-opening football game Aug. 25, 2017, Hilgeman went out for a pass in the third quarter of the Lions' 30-0 loss to Harvest Prep. He heard a snap that would alter the course of his career in prep athletics.
The injury was more severe than most with Hilgeman needing a portion of his left hamstring to repair the knee.
"We were running a play-action pass near the end of the third quarter in the first game of my junior season when I went to catch the ball and landed a little awkwardly," he said. "I heard a really loud pop. When I got up to get off the field the pain hit me and I just collapsed. I knew something was wrong at that point.
"I had the kind of tear where I couldn't bend my leg or straighten it. It was excruciating pain if I did either. I had surgery in October (2017), a little more than a month after the injury, and I had a lot of atrophy to my leg. They had to take a chunk of my hamstring out to graft to the ACL, so I also had to regain my hamstring strength at the same time."
Hilgeman is familiar with knee surgeries. His sister, 2017 graduate Hannah Hilgeman, and his mother, Cathie Ward, both had ACL injuries as high school seniors. Hannah is a sophomore at Ohio University studying to be an athletics trainer.
"I started rehab the day after surgery, which I think is kind of different," Hilgeman said. "You have to do physical therapy every day, which is tough because it hurts so much.
"I was in so much pain, but the pains (of a knee injury and rehab) are different, honestly. It sounded like bamboo snapping when it happened. I could hear it. It happened and then nothing was there until it hits you, and it's the worst pain in your life and then it goes away.
"The (rehab) pain is just constant, when you are doing a leg press or whatever. You know you have to build things up. They always measure your legs to see where you are at. Most people can never get that definition back after surgery."
Hilgeman returned to jogging in January 2018, and he described the workout as "scary because my knee felt really loose." Getting back on the mat for freestyle matches last summer also had its difficulties, because his knee brace seemed too cumbersome to overcome.
"It was hard getting back on the mat," he said. "The first time I wore my brace, I was like, 'This isn't happening.' I didn't know how I was going to do it because (the brace) was so bulky that I could barely move my leg. I didn't want to use my leg, and I walked around gingerly and didn't want to press off of it. I slowly got used to it.
"One of the biggest things was that I had to change up my referee's position. When I'm on the bottom, you sit down on the back part of your leg and I can't do that with the brace. I can't do that anymore so I had to change my sit-outs, my stand-up and things like that."
Cleared to play football last fall, Hilgeman decided to sit out to avoid injury for wrestling and lacrosse. As a sophomore, he was a Division II district qualifier at 138 and finished 29-17.
Hilgeman was a late starter to wrestling, beginning in the eighth grade. As a senior, he is 11-3.
"I don't feel like Hunter lost anything other than a year of wrestling," coach Chris Bragg said. "You watch him and he has stepped right back where he was before. It doesn't look like he missed a step.
"We're happy with his progress, and he has been a great leader. He's a lot stronger than he has ever been, especially in his upper-body strength. He really worked hard in the weight room, which is what he needed. Technique-wise, he's just a sponge."
Hilgeman knew wrestling would be a challenge by the nature of the sport. Every muscle in the body is used when you set foot on the mat.
"You use so many muscles wrestling that you don't use every day like your neck and whatnot," said Hilgeman, who has a 3.7 GPA and plans to major in biology or applied nutrition in college. "Starting to rehab after surgery, I had to learn how to walk again because my leg had had so much atrophy. After surgery, my thigh was pretty much just my femur. I had no muscle in my leg.
"That experience helped me develop more skills because I had to step outside of what I normally do. I knew I wouldn't be able to shoot (takedowns) normally, so I had to find different offensive techniques and I had to do things that I couldn't normally do."
Bragg said the process is something Hilgeman has handled well, but it still will be an ongoing struggle to reach his potential in new ways.
"You develop a new norm after injuries," Bragg said. "You are never going to be normal again and the faster you come to terms with that, the better off you will be.
"I think he still has a shot at reaching state, but it's always a tough road to get there. His style is different because he has a new norm and he is learning to wrestle with his new body."
Boys basketball team has win streak snapped
The boys basketball team dropped a 44-42 decision against visiting Whitehall on Jan. 18 to snap a five-game winning streak.
Anthony Welsh scored 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter as the Lions rallied from a 10-point deficit. The Rams got a basket from Taylon Cofer at the buzzer for the win.
Nasir Tucker had 17 points with four 3-pointers to lead the Lions, who are 10-5 overall and 2-3 in the MSL-Ohio Division. Ryan Callahan added 10 points.
Tucker scored 18 points and Callahan added 11 as Bexley defeated visiting Bloom-Carroll 55-50 on Jan. 15.
Girls basketball team still tied atop league
The girls basketball team remains tied atop the MSL-Ohio with Worthington Christian at 4-1.
A league contest at Grandview on Jan. 19 was postponed because of bad weather and rescheduled for Feb. 5.
The Lions are 7-6 overall. Maddy Vincent is averaging a team-best 14.2 points, followed by Maddy Young (8.3) and Emma Dressel (4.2).
Below are the coming schedules for the Bexley boys basketball, girls basketball, boys bowling, swimming & diving and wrestling teams:
*Jan. 26 -- Home vs. Grandview. The Lions defeated the the Bobcats 49-29 on Dec. 14.
*Jan. 25 -- Home vs. Columbus Academy. The Lions defeated the Vikings 42-25 on Dec. 15.
Jan. 26 -- At Logan
Jan. 26 -- Jaguar Baker Marathon at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl
SWIMMING & DIVING
Jan. 26 -- MSL meet at Academy
Jan. 26 -- New Albany Invitational