Heather Corral is only half joking when she describes herself as the glutton for punishment on the University of Washington women’s basketball team.
Between seven surgeries on her knees and two more on her shoulder, Corral has been needled, cut and stitched more than the buzzing patient in the game “Operation.”
It’s like some karmic glitch has seen an entire team’s worth of misfortune fall on one person.
But for her team, the NCAA Final Four-bound Huskies, Corral is willing to take the fall.
“I would rather it be me than any of my teammates,” Corral said. “If me going through this keeps someone else from having to, I’ll take it.”
Corral has not played in more than two years since a knee injury ended her sophomore season after seven games.
During that time, the 2012 Class 3A Associated Press State Player of the Year from Prairie High School has watched Washington’s program ascend.
This week, the Huskies are in rare air. After finishing fifth in the Pac-12, UW has reached its first Final Four by upsetting Maryland, Kentucky and Stanford.
Everyone loves an underdog, so Northwest hoops fans have rallied around a team that became just the second to reach the Final Four after finishing the regular season unranked.
For UW, the sudden burst of fame is a dream come true.
For Corral, it’s like a blissful dream in which reality unwelcomely creeps in.
She was there during the wild postgame locker room celebrations of the past two weeks.
She was on the bench and in the tense huddles late in those tournament games.
She’ll share in the pomp and pressure of the Final Four, in which UW will face Syracuse on Sunday in Indianapolis.
But Corral’s experience is tempered by not being able to do what she went to Seattle for — to play basketball.
“It has been really hard over the past year,” she said. “Every day I was doing rehab or in the training room, I wished I could be out there.”
Most people would say “enough.” Not Corral.
She hopes to play next season, which would be her fifth year with the program.
“If I didn’t give it my best shot, I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten what I wanted out of college.”
Knee injuries were a part of Corral’s life before she was a prized college recruit. Early in her sophomore season at Prairie, she suffered a right-knee injury that required ACL and microfracture surgery.
She came back strong her junior year, only to have the ACL in her left knee tear just as the postseason was getting started.
That didn’t scare off college recruiters, though. She signed with UW in November of her senior season.
Corral’s knee remained bothersome during her senior year and her playing time was limited in the regular season. But in the postseason, she led Prairie to the state title and was named tournament MVP.
Former Prairie coach Al Aldridge remembers Corral’s mental toughness, some would say stubbornness, that allowed her to be great in spite of injuries.
“If Heather puts her mind to something, she’s going to go for it,” Aldridge said. “She’s not going to be half-hearted about it.”
The summer before arriving at UW, Corral had surgery to clean up cartilage in her left knee. Her right knee was still painful — at the time she described it as being “bone on bone.”
Despite having four knee operations in a three-year span, Corral’s freshman year was encouraging. Playing through a lingering shoulder injury, she appeared in 24 games and started four.
“I thought I was done with surgeries,” she said.
But after her knee gave out early in her sophomore year, Corral was told by doctors she’d probably never play again.
Yet, she began another long rehabilitation program. Now 16 months removed from her last surgery, she says her knees feel stable.
She wants to prove doctors wrong. But more importantly, she wants to prove those who have supported her right.
First and foremost are her teammates.
“The team has been great about helping me feel involved,” she said. “They’ve let me lead warmups a few times … They’re my best friends, but they have also been like a family.”
Whether she sets foot on the basketball court again remains to be seen. But the ups and downs of Corral’s basketball journey can be hard to put in words.
That’s why, in a recent phone interview, Corral was loquacious until the final question: What have you learned about yourself through all of this?
In her answer, Corral showed her unyielding drive that keeps her chasing that basketball dream when most others would have given up.
“That’s a hard one,” she said. “At the end of the day, you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548.