Anvi Agarwal dribbles the ball down court during a 37-31 win at Robbinsville on Jan. 11, 2019. The senior is returning this year from a significant knee injury. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Nine months after a pop in her knee changed everything, Anvi Agarwal returned inspirationally to the High School South girls basketball team.

“We were preparing for her not to be ready for the beginning of the year,” said Pirates third-year head coach Mike Hussong. “She’s made a pretty quick recovery and we’ve managed to insert her in the lineup. The girls love having her on the court. She’s a very stable figure for our team. She’s always really steady for us.”

Agarwal still isn’t quite up to full speed, but the Pirates senior point guard is still ahead of where some would have predicted after tearing her ACL in the final game of last season.

Agarwal stole the ball from a Princeton Day School player in their Mercer County Tournament consolation game and was on a fast break. When she stopped to shoot a layup, she heard a pop and her knee gave out.

“I was kind of in denial,” Agarwal said. “I was hoping it was just a sprain. It hurt a lot. I couldn’t put weight on it, but the swelling wasn’t too bad. I was kind of in denial until I got the MRI results back.”

The diagnosis was devastating. Agarwal was switching to a new AAU team for the spring and summer, but the injury halted any chance to be evaluated by college coaches.

“It was supposed to be an important year in terms of playing in college and being seen by coaches,” Agarwal said. “I know it’s usually a pretty tough injury. It takes a long time to rehab from it. I was pretty upsetting.”

Agarwal followed her brother into sports, and had been playing soccer a little longer than basketball, but basketball was her passion. She started playing AAU in fifth grade and put increasingly more energy into her training and preparation once she got to high school. Hussong, who was the JV coach her freshman year before taking over the varsity job, has coached her all four of her high school seasons.

“Coming in as a freshman, she was a pretty talented player to begin with,” he said. “She had a pretty nice jump shot. Her biggest development from her freshman year until now is her ability to get tougher. Being a point guard at the varsity level is a really tasking job to have. Usually you get the other team’s best defender, quickest defender. She takes that challenge head on with a positive attitude. We always appreciate that.

“She’s always asked to do a lot of things for us,” he added. “She’s asked to distribute the ball, get us into our sets, as well as score for our team. We put a lot on her shoulders, but she handles it well.”

Agarwal returned to action in the first game of the season, a remarkable testament to her physical therapy. But her knee didn’t feel right in the game and she missed some subsequent action before returning to the court for the Pirates.

“I’m a little less quick than I was,” Agarwal said. “I’m working to get my skills back. I hadn’t been able to play in a long time, so I was really nervous before our first scrimmage and first game. Practicing is one thing, but getting back into an actual game and game situations was a little scary. I definitely had a lot of support from my teammates and coach and I was excited to come back.”

Agarwal has shown flashes of her abilities during her comeback season. She scored 21 points against Hamilton, 17 against Lawrence and a season-high 22 points against Trenton, just off her career-high 24 points set last year against Notre Dame.

“I think a lot of it is mental, just knowing I can do it and once I start to feel that, I see that I can,” Agarwal said. “There’s a little bit of a difference in some things. Maybe I’m not as fast, but I’m working at it and I’m getting back pretty much to where I was.”

It’s not the points that matter to Agarwal. She’s happy to be back on the floor to help her team again. After winning just five games all season last year, WW-P South had four wins in its first eight games this year. The wins show a program that is turning itself around.

“This group is very similar to the group we had last year,” Hussong said. “We only had one senior graduate, so there wasn’t a ton of turnover. Everyone is familiar with each other so our team chemistry is there. We’re still working on a few things to get everything right and change the culture around here and get it to be more of a winning culture. We’re working on it every day. The kids work extremely hard at practice every day and get better each day.”

He’s happy to see that their hard work in practice is producing more wins. The Pirates know that they are on track.

Agarwal is part of a senior class that is seeing some of the benefits of the change, and is setting the program up for success in future years.

“We’re definitely working toward it,” she said. “The enthusiasm and competitiveness and desire to win is a lot greater than last year. We’re developing a winning culture in terms of wanting to put your best foot forward and out-compete the other teams. It’s great to see people starting to play more and be interested in improving and getting better.”

Explained Hussong: “We always talk about being mentally tough, especially in the midst of the game. We talk about being competitors. We like every kid to compete, whether it’s in an official game, tournament game or just scrimmaging at practice or doing some sort of shooting drill. We try to make everything competitive so that by the time we get to the real games that’s our mindset and we’re going in to compete with any team we play.”

It has helped the Pirates to have good influences and inspirational leaders like Agarwal to guide them upward. She has seen the program start to change over her career while seeing herself grow plenty.

“I’ve learned a lot about leadership and how to go through tough stretches with your team,” Agarwal said. “We’ve had some tough losses and we haven’t won that many games in the past two seasons. But I think I’ve learned a lot about keeping constant enthusiasm and trying to uplift my teammates and making sure we’re playing to the best of our ability even when things aren’t going our way. And I’ve learned a lot about teamwork, and you can still get a lot out of it even if you don’t have the most wins or points or whatever.”

That upbeat attitude helped Agarwal through the toughest injury of her basketball career. She was driven by the hope of returning to the Pirates.

“I’m around 10 months after my surgery,” she said. “It took a while to get back to running. I was a little nervous starting to play and going into cutting motions. Basketball, there’s so many cutting movements and jumping and sudden movements and impact. I was looking forward to playing the whole time.”

Agarwal isn’t sure now if she will have the chance to play beyond high school. She’d always dreamed of playing in college, but she has other interests she might pursue. If this does end up being her final season of basketball, she’s been thrilled to work her way back for one more shot.

“It’s meant a lot,” Agarwal said. “It’s just really great to be able to finish it out. I’ve been playing with a lot of the same girls for four years. It’s great to be able to play with them one last time. It could be one of the last times I get to play competitive basketball. It’s exciting in that aspect.

“We’re a much improved team this year with more varsity experience so it’s going to be a fun season. We’re going to get a better record and a lot more wins. It means a lot. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to play. Just to be able to get on the court is awesome.”