Highland Park Senior Sam Shrago brings in a nice layup against Maine East's Evan Nazzal. | Mark Ukena~For Sun-Times Media
Last June, Highland Park boys basketball player Sam Shrago had a conversation he’ll never forget.
Still recovering from reconstructive right knee surgery he underwent his junior season, he was watching his Giants teammates compete in a summer basketball league game. Shrago was introduced to Prospect coach John Camardella, who was there with his team.
“He told me he tore his ACL four times,” the 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior said. “He gave me some tips on staying stronger mentally and physically.”
That advice — pushing through therapy, never taking a day off — resonated with Shrago as he endured four more months of rehabilitation before the start of Highland Park’s season.
Now as the calendar turns to late January, the Giants’ season is in the midst of a resurgence. Highland Park has won seven of nine games, flipping a 2-7 start to an even 9-9. And while there are a multitude of reasons for the uptick, none have more impact than the play of Shrago.
“Sam is like a lot of our guys,” Highland Park coach Paul Harris said. “Our team has followed the way our individuals are following. We’re having incremental progress.”
When the season started, Shrago had recovered enough from the injury to get clearance to practice. But much like a young child reluctant to jump off a diving board, he was tentative on the court.
Compounding his slow recovery was the surgically repaired knee. It would be sore after any basketball-related activity. Restoring strength was a chore, Shrago having to ice it as many as five times a day. Yet by the holidays, all the months of therapy and rehabilitation began to stick.
He began to trust his body again.
“(I was) jumping really high for a rebound. Before I was scared I’d come down really awkwardly,” Shrago said. “Driving to the rim, going up for a layup — before I was timid going into the lane and getting hit and landing awkwardly. Now I’m getting more confident with my body.”
In a 46-37 victory over Maine East Friday, Shrago looked self-assured. He corralled a team-high five rebounds while scoring eight fourth-quarter points to put the game away for the Giants. Six points came on a pair of deep three-point baskets. The other hoop was a driving layup, requiring a quick first step to shake his defender.
Shrago’s largest impact on his teammates comes from the leadership he demonstrates every time he steps on the court.
“He’s cutting well, his rebounding and shooting spot-up is amazing,” sophomore forward Jordan Krawitz said. “It’s really hard what’s he’s doing. He’s playing a lot more passionately now. We all respect him for it.”
Which is just what Shrago wants. By coming all the way back from an injured knee, he’s giving his teammates much more than they could ever ask.
“They know what I’ve been through and that it was tough for me,” Shrago said. “Now I’m playing just like I did before, not thinking that I had an injury. I’m just playing basketball.”