By Joe Arruda
Hoosac Valley’s Riley Robinson forced a St. Mary’s turnover three minutes into the first quarter of the 2019 MIAA Div. III State Championship. She took off running, driving hard to the basket.
There was contact, as expected on a fast break, but this time it totally took her off guard. Her legs were taken out from under her, and she proceeded to crash head first into the hardwood.
Silence filled the Worcester Polytechnic Institute gymnasium as blood flowed from just above the junior’s left eyebrow. In the stands, Robinson’s sister and grandmother had even begun to cry.
“First thing I saw was my hands covered in blood and that’s when I started to kind of freak out like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ I just had to sit there and regain my breathe and focus on what was actually going on in the moment and calm down,” Robinson said. “Once I did that, everything was starting to ease up and I just knew I needed to get something taken care of.”
Seconds before the collision, Ron Wojcik, Hoosac Valley’s head coach, was focusing on coaching. And then, within the blink of an eye, one of his players was laying in her own blood. His thoughts immediately diverted from basketball.
“It’s scary, number one seeing that much blood. But then two, I just felt really bad for her because I know how much obviously a state championship means to you. So those were the first two things that crossed my mind,” Wojcik said.
“Certainly it was going to be a letdown for us if she couldn’t play, the starting point guard and the leader of our defense in the middle of the floor. Our game plan was kind of centered around her, so all of those things run through your mind. The biggest thing was, ‘is she going to be okay?’ I felt she was, it was something that is treatable, but still it was scary when you first saw it.”
The medical team helped Robinson walk off the court, and brought her to the side of the bleachers where they would wrap her head in a black bandage.
“I could still see part of the game, but I could only see the end that St. Mary’s was scoring on. I’d see them make a basket and I’d hear the big fan section cheering and I was like, ‘Oh my God, (I need to get back out there),’” Robinson said.
That, of course, would not happen without her proving that she physically could.
After performing an eye-sight test, a series of motor tests, a running test, and cleaning everything off in the bathroom, the medical team was finally convinced.
“About halfway through the second quarter I hear this loud roar and Riley’s back on the bench,” Wojcik said. “That was the loudest ovation of the day. I was looking the other way but once she came around the corner the fans started cheering and I knew what it was.”
“Coach, I’m ready,” she said.
“From a coaching standpoint, I can tell you it is one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen. I’ve been doing boys and then girls now for 28 years and I’d never seen anything like it,” Wojcik said.
Once Robinson re-entered, she ignited an 11-0 run through which the Hurricanes extended their once-slim lead to double figures.
She even took a charge.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Hoosac team surrounded Robinson with smiles on their faces, and as state champions.
After the game, the Hurricanes were to be paraded through the county with fire trucks and police cars. But first, they had to make a stop at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass. where their starting point guard was getting temporary stitches.
“We took the school bus over to the hospital so we could make sure she was on the bus for the parade. It was pretty cool, kind of a storybook type of thing for sure,” Wojcik said.
She boarded the bus to the emphatic Rocky theme song.
On Friday, at the 2020 Spalding Hoophall Classic Presented By Eastbay, Robinson took the court with her teammates as a senior. This time, her dark gray headband was over her hair rather than her eyebrow.
Despite her team’s loss, Robinson’s leadership and teamwork shined.
“She is the type of kid that brings a lot of intangibles to the floor. Some kids will bring shooting, scoring, but she brings a little of everything. That toughness, that ball handling – obviously the toughness coming back in a game like that,” Wojcik said. “She for us, isn’t necessarily a 20-point (scorer), but on any given night she could kick in with a triple double. With rebounds, assists, steals and points. She is that type of kid and that type of player.”
Not only is she the one who takes the ball down the court for the Hurricanes on most trips, she is also positioned as the center of their defense. She jumps at any possible opportunity to disrupt an opponent’s drive through the lane, negating the possibility of an easy bucket in the paint.
She runs the team with not only her basketball ability, but with her knowledge of the game.
“When you talk about somebody that is the heart and soul of a program, Riley is one of those kids,” Wojcik said. “You’re fortunate as a coach to have somebody like a Riley because it is like having an extension of the coaching staff on the floor. It really holds true for her. A lot of times I’ll look at her and she’ll call something and it’s what I was thinking and we didn’t even exchange words.”
A senior, Robinson hopes that her team’s loss in the Hoophall Classic won’t be her final trip to Blake Arena. Springfield College is her top choice for its physical therapy program.
“If I get in, I’m definitely coming here.”
Photos Courtesy of Joe Arruda