COLO - Madison Eley beamed with enthusiasm, sharing laughs with her teammates as they wrapped up practice with a lively long-distance shooting contest Monday.
It was a far cry from the situation and emotions the senior faced just 12 months ago.
"A year ago right now I was pretty low," said Eley, who missed all but two games of her entire junior season with an ACL injury.
-R PHOTO BY TYLER STRAND
Colo-NESCO senior Madison Eley returned from knee surgery to help lead the Royals girls’ basketball team back to the state tournament for the first time since 2005.
"I didn't think that I would come this far again. It's been a journey - seven or eight months of therapy. It's all paid off."
Still wearing the right knee brace, which serves as daily reminder of how far she's come, the Royals' top scorer and emotional leader believes the chain of events served a purpose.
"I learned I need to be humble," Eley said.
Class 1A Quarterfinals
At Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Monday, Feb. 25
Colo-NESCO vs. Notre Dame, Burlington, 1:30 p.m.
"I think this is all part of the plan. Last year happened for a reason and I think that this is our year."
So far it has been for Eley and the Iowa Star Conference Champions, riding a 17-game win streak and 23-2 record into the Iowa Girls Basketball State Tournament.
Though Colo-NESCO coach Wayne Cafferty believes Eley is still just at 80 percent, it's been more than enough for the Class 1A North Central District Team honoree to turn in 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest, while playing with a renewed perspective after watching from the sidelines last season.
"It's made her a better team player," Cafferty said of Eley's absence from the court.
"She's developed more of a trust and appreciation for her teammates. She appreciates playing a lot more now. I think she kind of took it for granted, but she worked really hard over the offseason to get back."
That work ethic and dedication has left a lasting impact on her teammates.
"Her leadership and unselfishness have been key," Cafferty said.
"When your best player is unselfish, everyone else kind of follows along."
That unselfishness has bred balance as seven different players have reached double figures for Colo-NESCO this year, including four different leading scorers in its last five games.
Dishing out 89 assists, Eley hasn't missed a beat while rejoining her teammates this season - who are just as excited to have her back.
"They've welcomed me like I was never gone and we just work so well together," Eley said.
"We have fun and that's the No. 1 thing that we do - we have so much fun. Laughing is a key out there."
Along with loosening the tension, the senior's return also eased Samantha Riese's anxieties while battling through a couple of her own knee injuries this season.
"Madison showed that anything is possible," Riese said.
"She was really upset last year, but her return showed us that she is really strong and a natural born leader."
The Royals will likely need a balance of Eley's easy going demeanor and take charge mentality when they take the floor at Wells Fargo Arena against fifth-ranked Notre Dame of Burlington (21-3) Monday at 1:30 p.m.
Equaling the height of the Nikes' tallest starter, the 5-foot-10 forward is another example of the size advantage the Royals hold against Notre Dame and her defensive prowess (89 steals) will be much needed against its speedy guard-oriented attack.
While Eley's return has served as inspiration for her teammates, the senior has taken away just as much from their offseason dedication in the weight room and gym, which has transpired with improvement all around on the floor.
"I'm so proud of every single one of them," Eley said.
"We work hard and we don't give up."
Those qualities have led to a 10-win improvement over last year's 13-9 mark and the seventh state tourney appearance in school history.
When it finally comes time for Eley to hang up her jersey, she's more than confident the ball is rolling in the right direction for the Royals.
"Every one of them works hard," Eley said. "They have a good future ahead. They're going to be a good team."