Enduring the pain: Bad knees, sore back can’t keep Ashbaugh, Flohr off court for Mavs

Staying on the court for the Mesa State men’s basketball team is a process for senior Sean Flohr, whose bad back requires lots of ice after practice and after games.

Mesa hoops player Justin Ashbaugh gets hooked up to a stim machine by student trainer Bridget Brownell in the Copeland Training room.

Justin Ashbaugh has booth knees iced after practice by Mesa assistant trainer Geana Gaasch.

When Justin Ashbaugh scored a season-high 17 points against Western New Mexico last month, Geana Gaasch couldn’t help but smile.

Nearly 18 months after surgery on one knee and an injury to the other, Ashbaugh was his old self.

Gaasch, an assistant athletic trainer at Mesa State College assigned to the men’s basketball team the past two years, has been with Ashbaugh every step of the way.

She worked on his rehabilitation after he needed surgery in August 2008 to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

She was a sounding board when he worried if his knee would hold up this season, and was there when he tore the meniscus in his right knee in two places this fall.

And she was the first person Ashbaugh looked for after that memorable game.

“Ice,” he told her with a big smile. “I need ice.”

“You spend more time with them and you develop a little different relationship with them,” Gaasch said.

“You want to see them have those games where they’re playing like they used to play, so I was very happy to see him have a game like that.”

Ashbaugh and fellow senior Sean Flohr are regulars in the Copeland Family Training Center at Saunders Fieldhouse. The time they spend in treatment is allowing them to play for the ninth-ranked Mavericks.

“I try not to miss a day, before and after practice,” Ashbaugh said. “I think it’s keeping me going. I might as well use everything they have as long as I’m here. If you have it at your fingertips, you should use it.”

Ashbaugh does rehabilitative exercises for his knees early in the day, then about a half-hour before practice, he’s back in the training room. He claims a table at the back and places pads on both knees that are wired to a stimulator, sending electric currents into his knees that make the muscles contract and relax.

A student trainer places large heat packs on his knees as Ashbaugh relaxes before practice.

Once he’s done, he straps a brace onto his left knee and heads for the gym.

Flohr, who has two bad discs in his back, often has a stim and heat treatment before practice.

Both are religious about post-practice and post-game — ice. Lots and lots of ice.

Ashbaugh has ice bags wrapped on each knee as soon as practice and games end, Flohr has a bag secured to his lower back.

After a long, demanding practice, Ashbaugh will be back in the training room with an air compression boot on each leg. Compartments are filled with air, from hip to toe, to help reduce swelling.

“Kevin Garnett used this,” head trainer Josh Fullmer said. “(Lance) Armstrong used it between each stage (of the Tour de France). It’s the latest and greatest treatment.”

Ashbaugh will probably have surgery on his right knee to remove the torn meniscus after the season. Flohr is hoping to avoid back surgery, but did need medical attention over the Christmas break.

“I got an epidural over the winter break so I couldn’t feel any of the pain,” said the senior from Glenwood Springs, who has one herniated disc and one bulging disc. “It bothers me. You just have to deal with it.

“The only way it goes away is rest, and surgery is really not an option for me right now. No way you could drag me away from the court right now.”

That’s what Gaasch and the rest of the training staff is hoping to avoid.

“Especially this year,” Gaasch said. “I don’t want to be the one to say, ‘Sorry, Coach, you just lost your best player.’ We still have to make that decision, but our No. 1 priority is still the athlete, not the team or the coaches, but it is a balancing act.”

Until senior guard Jase Herl sprained his right ankle last Tuesday, the Mavericks hadn’t had an injury this season that cost a player time on the floor. Herl is expected back in time for the RMAC Shootout next month.

Right now, neither Flohr nor Ashbaugh is in danger of injuring himself worse by playing and have been cleared to play by the medical staff at Western Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.

If that changes, Gaasch wouldn’t hesitate to revoke that clearance.

“(Ashbaugh) asked me when he talked about coming back this season, ‘Am I going to put myself at (risk of) further injury?’ We talked about that with the team physicians,” Gaasch said. “If Justin or Sean were in a situation where they were hurting themselves more by playing, they would not be playing.

“They’re definitely putting some wear and tear on their bodies and they’re going to pay for it, but we all at some point in time experience that. They’re doing OK, they’re managing.”

Flohr’s back started acting up last season. It improved over the summer but the pain returned when the Mavericks started working out again this season.

“I wasn’t sleeping very much,” he admitted. “One of our scrimmages I didn’t even make it to because I couldn’t get out of bed for awhile.

“Something had to be done. If I didn’t get that shot, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I’m hoping it doesn’t wear off completely before the season’s over. I don’t know if I’m going to have to go back for another, but it’s holding up right now.”

Neither player is restricted during practice, although coach Jim Heaps allows them to make the call if they’re not up for certain drills.

“Fewer charge drills,” Flohr said, laughing. “I’m making it through. Coach has been really cool about making sure not to make me do that kind of stuff.”

The days Flohr’s back is stiff and sore, he spends a lot of time in the training room. On good days, stretching before practice is enough to get him ready.

“He’s pretty much symptomatic,” Gaasch said. “There’s not a ton we can do. Lots of core strengthening activities. We treat the symptoms at this point. We’re not going to fix the problem, so we treat the symptoms.”

If they were underclassmen, there’s a good chance neither Flohr nor Ashbaugh would be playing this season.

This is it for them, so they’re doing everything they can to be part of one of the best seasons in the history of the program.

The only thing they might wish was that they were as healthy as they were a couple of years ago.

“They said the arthritis is already starting to kick in,” Ashbaugh said of his left knee.

And if he were younger?

“I wouldn’t push through it,” he admitted. “I’m glad I didn’t have to sit out this year.”


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