Five key players missing from TOC

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The on-court impact of five star players is being felt at the Nike Tournament of Champions, but for all the wrong reasons.

While their teammates take to the floor in the Joe Smith bracket, these five players are relegated to the bench, learning how to keep the book, helping find holes in the defense and supporting the girls they are used to playing with, not observing. And while three of their teams advanced to the semifinals, each is clearly missing a key piece of the puzzle.

"I'm just trying to be positive for my teammates," Mater Dei junior Alexyz Vaioletama said. "I see the things we need to work on, so when anybody comes out, I can talk to them about stuff."

Vaioletama, the Monarchs' tough inside presence, is sitting out to let stress fractures in her legs heal and said she has been making a lot of progress in her rehabilitation. She has appointments about every two months and hopes her next appointment, in mid-January, might finally signal a return. Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) faces Southern Section rival Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.) in a charity game Jan. 18, which Vaioletama has circled on her calendar.

While Vaioletama may be able to return for the Brea battle, the Ladycats' star junior will likely be on crutches. Justine Hartman, who couldn't bear the pain of an injured anterior cruciate ligament any longer, has surgery to repair her right ACL and meniscus scheduled for Jan. 11. Depending on her rehab progress, she may miss part or all of the upcoming summer evaluation period as well.

Another California squad, Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.) joins Mater Dei and Brea Olinda in the semifinals despite missing a key member of the team. USC-bound Thaddesia Southall has yet to play her senior season after having surgery on the ACL in her right knee during the summer.

Southall, who completed a strengthening program before her surgery, is sprinting again and said she will be fitted for her brace after the Jackrabbits return home from the TOC. She hopes to return in January.

Hillsboro (Nashville, Tenn.) senior Lakeisha Crouch can be added to the list players sitting with an ACL in some form of repair. Crouch had surgery in November and may be able to return to action by the playoffs, if her doctors give their approval, but for now the Xavier-bound senior sits on the bench, doing her best to support her teammates.

One last senior is missing her team's appearance in the TOC as H.D. Woodson (Washington, D.C.) guard Ronika Ransford sits with a strained quadriceps muscle in her right leg. She injured it in the first quarter of a Dec. 13 game against Germantown Academy and has to sit since, now hoping for a return in January.

"It's demoralizing [to sit and watch]," Ransford said. "I just want to play."

Carlie Needles update

After hitting her head on the court late in Saturday's game against St. Mary's (Phoenix), Carlie Needles was on the court for a few minutes before returning to the ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) bench. She told those who attended to her than she felt dizzy and nauseous, signs of a possible concussion.

Needles didn't return to the game, but has her sights set on returning for Monday's 2 p.m. battle against Norcross (Ga.) after a day off.

"She says she's playing," coach Bill Bradley wrote in a text message. "We will see."

Bolingbrook coach on crutches

Thanks to a pair of crutches, Tony Smith isn't able to pace the sideline like he typically does during Bolingbrook (Ill.) games. But he'd rather be on those crutches than pacing while one of his players needed them to steady herself during timeouts.

"I'm glad it was me and not one of the kids," Smith said. "Even though I don't like having 40 staples in my knee."

Smith tore the patellar tendon in his right knee Nov. 28 during the Raiders' practice before they faced Brebeuf Jesuit (Indianapolis, Ind.) in a game that night. Smith and his coaches got in the mix, trying to get the girls pumped up for the game. As he went up for a shot, he felt a "pop-pop" and went down.

Smith coached the game, which Bolingbrook won 72-13, then returned to the hospital on Dec. 2 for surgery. He hopes to be off the crutches within the next couple weeks then will start rehabilitation, where his doctor will likely remind him to refrain from jumping on the sidelines during games.

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Mindi Rice is an ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at mindi@hoopgurlz.com.