Just a week before the 2014 season was to begin, Cody Howard stepped on first base in practice and tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee, costing him the entire year.
He faced eight months of rehabilitation, and then when Howard returned for the 2015 season, he tore up the knee again sliding into second base during a January practice.
“That was really tough when I did that again,” Howard said. “It was like, how am I ever going to make it back? If I can’t make it through a couple of practices, how am I going to make it through a full season? It was tough more mentally than physically.”
Howard, a right fielder, had the tear removed by doctors, leaving him with a partial meniscus. This time, he missed only two months.
It would have been easy for Howard to walk away after either injury. The same could be said for teammate Justin Jones, who tore up his left labrum in 2015 diving headfirst into second base in a game at Air Force and going through a similarly lengthy rehab.
“I thought it was going to be where we popped it back into place and I’d be good in two weeks,” said Jones, who plays second base. “Then I got MRI’d. It was all thrashed up. It was two weeks into the season, so I was pretty upset. It was my junior year. I was looking for a big season for me and the team. I felt like I let the team down because I wasn’t there.”
Now both players, who each received an extra season from the NCAA with a medical redshirt, are finishing their senior seasons, providing an example to their younger teammates and giving coach Stan Stolte a good talking point on perseverance.
“They’re kind of quiet leaders,” Stolte said. “They show by example, and I think the other kids look up to them and know what they’ve been through.”
Both players are locals — Howard went to Coronado High and Jones to Bishop Gorman.
They also are key players. Jones is tied for the lead in home runs (nine), RBIs (46) and batting average (.358). Howard is hitting .281, with four homers and 20 RBIs.
Each players said their teammates’ support kept them going through the tough times. They remained in the dugout with the team even while sidelined.
“Being around all the kids, all the personalities helps a lot,” Jones said. “All the kids were always helping me mentally with everything, and it made me want to get back on the field as fast as possible.”
Returning to the field was a challenge in itself. Jones had to get back to diving without fear, and Howard had to bounce back from two major injuries to the same knee.
“Initially when you get back, you’re a little scared,” Howard said. “But I think from being out on the field and being around the guys again, you kind of forget about it. It disappears, and you just go back to playing.”
And for Jones, it’s being able to play that more than anything else drove him to return.
“I love this game,” Jones said. “I am absolutely not ready to stop playing by any means, and I wanted to get back on the field as soon as I can to help this team win.”
The Rebels play four teams next season that made the NCAA Tournament — UCLA, New Mexico, Portland and Pacific. UNLV also made the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the second round, and all 11 starters return.
Contact Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.