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Gwinn’s Pleaugh one of two winners of Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award

Overcame back injury to have very good basketball and volleyball seasons
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Published: Apr. 19, 2022 at 4:53 PM EDT
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GWINN, Mich. (WLUC) - Lena Pleaugh was told she would never play sports again.

Now a junior at Gwinn High School and then a sophomore, she suffered a serious back injury during a high school basketball game in Negaunee on Feb. 16, 2021. Sitting at U.P. Health System-Marquette, it was a lot to process for a teenage girl whose life was all about competition and athletics.

Though it was a long, sometimes tortuous road, Pleaugh has completed a year-long comeback as she nears the end of her junior year with a full season of volleyball and basketball since the injury.

The 5-foot-5 point guard made an exceptional comeback, averaging 16.8 points per game and earning an All-Upper Peninsula Division 1-3 Second Team honor from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association just a few weeks ago at its annual basketball meeting.

In addition, she was nominated for and awarded the UPSSA’s Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award. The award is named in honor of the late Gil Heard, who was a sports information director at Northern Michigan University for 23 years and is a member of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame. It is presented to an athlete who demonstrates perseverance in overcoming a handicap to participate in athletics.

But back to that darkest night in February 2021, Pleaugh suffered numerous falls leading up to the crucial one, and being the competitor that she is, had previously played through it. That last fall in Negaunee caused nerve damage around the L3-L4 part of the spine and she couldn’t feel her legs.

Now this teenager that since Day 1 had a ball in her hands was told she couldn’t do what she loved anymore.

“That’s not something that any 16-year-old ever wants to hear, especially not one that revolves their life around sports,” Pleaugh said. “The first thought was, ‘Now what? Now what am I going to do with the rest of high school?’ This is what I do all day, every day, all year round.”

She and her family went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the following month for a second opinion, and there was news that they had hoped to hear. There was a chance that sports would be back on the table, but it wasn’t going to be an easy road.

After months of swim therapy, learning how to practically walk again, and feelings of helplessness that sports were out of the picture, Lena was cleared for contact sports on July 7.

“After six months, it definitely went a lot smoother,” Pleaugh said. “Every time that I fell on the ground, I just needed to make sure that I could get up. It went a lot better than expected, and I’m grateful for that.”

She was left without an offseason to prepare, and had missed camps for both volleyball and basketball. It was tough to be able to only shoot free throws and dribble while everyone else was playing, she said.

A setter in volleyball and point guard in basketball, a lot is asked of her in both sports for her teams to be successful.

The entire process of coming back to play sports was more mentally challenging than anything, Pleaugh said. More than anything, it was a fear of something happening again; was her back going to be able to hold out?

On top of that, she had to be Gwinn’s best basketball player every night, leading the team in minutes played. The Modeltowners’ team last season didn’t have a lot of depth, so there weren’t many playing breaks for anybody. Leading up to her return on the court, Gwinn girls basketball varsity coach Justin Maki got two summer scrimmages in so that she could see the floor for the first time in months.

“I told her let’s just see what happens, but the big thing with me is that you don’t play scared,” Maki said. “You can’t play scared, because that’s when you get hurt. We just limited her time out there, and I think she realized when she started playing that she was good to go.

“On top of that, she’s a competitor. When that competitiveness snaps in, she’s not thinking about her back anymore, she’s thinking about winning the basketball game.”

It was clear that the last year was difficult for Lena, and Maki could see her emotions gnawing at her when she had to sit and watch instead of play and compete.

The disappointment of having to watch practice instead of participate meant she didn’t have the same energy that she does when she can actually play, her coach said.

Lena’s family and coaches had a bird’s-eye view of the struggles she had to overcome, and she herself noticed not only their support, but the support from others, including with receiving the Gil Heard award.

“The support throughout the community was awesome,” Pleaugh said. “My coaches, my parents of course, were there. My parents went to doctor’s appointments, what are we going to do? How are we going to be able to do this?

“Every step of the way, they were going to make sure that I was back on the basketball floor again. Between the coaches that I had last year and now, they’ve been tremendously helpful through it all. Getting the award was nice, you obviously don’t ever want to be in that situation, but knowing that you did go through all that and came back to do what I did, it was nice.”

The people around Lena are proud of her progress; Maki, for instance, witnessed the rehab work that she needed to do. He also praises his point guard for earning her comeback and not giving up when she had many chances to do so. He couldn’t be prouder of her for getting the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award.

Pleaugh is now getting ready for the spring track and field season, and is also doing training at AdvantEdge Sports in Marquette and practicing twice a week for AAU basketball.

After last summer when all she was trying to do was get cleared and hoping that a return to sports was a possibility, she is now taking advantage and looking to make a massive jump in the offseason  heading into her senior year.

“This summer’s definitely the biggest offseason that I’ve ever had,” Pleaugh said. “I’m so excited for volleyball, for basketball next year, and everything to come. It’s senior season, I’m excited for all that and excited to be out on the court.

“My goals are higher this year, this year it was more getting back and getting better, now it’s working for (All-U.P.) Dream Team and all those different things. My excitement is through the roof for all of that.”

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