AUGUSTA — It wasn’t just the pain that scared Spencer Steele. It was the sound.

The sound of the pop that followed the twist of the knee. The sound that, in sports, means one thing.

“Doctors have told me before that if you ever feel that pop, it’s probably your ACL,” he said. “Right when I did it, I just lay down and knew that something probably wasn’t good.”

He was right. It was the ACL, torn in his left knee. For Steele, a senior forward on the Winthrop basketball team, there was nothing but despair at seeing his final season come to an end.

Then came the hope that maybe it didn’t have to.

“The next day, as it kicked in, I kept thinking to myself ‘I can get through this, I can come back, I can bounce back,'” he said. “The main goal was to get back for the end of the season, because that’s when my teammates need me the most.”

However outlandish the ambition seemed, Steele’s been able to make it work. He’s been a steady presence off the bench for the undefeated Ramblers, bringing a dose of energy and defense to a team that’s one victory shy of a C South regional championship.

“It’s called putting the team first,” coach Todd MacArthur said. “That’s the biggest sacrifice anybody can make for the team. Any other kid would probably shut their season down, but he chose to try to do something that not many people can do. He wants success this year, he doesn’t want his senior year to end and he doesn’t want this season to end.”

He’s doing it with a brace on his left knee, clamped around his pulled-up black socks, that allows him to re-create the stability during cuts, jumps and plants for which the ACL is normally required.

“It does hurt sometimes, but the pain will go away,” Steele said. “My team drives me. They need me, I need them. And it drives me to want to get out there and play and put the pain aside and just keep winning with them.”

The origin of the injury goes back to before Steele heard the pop. Steele was playing during the summer when he came down from a jump directly on the knee, causing an injury to his MCL — and an overlooked one to his ACL.

“My whole body just kind of fell,” Steele said. “It just kind of squashed it.”

Steele worked to build up his MCL in time for the season, but two games in, the ACL blew up. Steele went to cut against Mountain Valley, and immediately went down.

“My body just went forward and my leg stayed,” he said. “When I cut, it popped pretty loud. I could hear the pop, I felt it, a lot. And excruciating pain.

“Initially, when I hurt it, I was like ‘There goes my season.’ I felt kind of like I was letting people down, letting my teammates down.”

Soon, Steele’s optimism kicked in. He looked into braces he could use. He looked up athletes who played through torn ACLs. He talked to doctors about what it would take to return to the court, then talked with MacArthur to organize a plan.

“I love the game of basketball,” he said. “So obviously I was going to do whatever I could to play.”

Three weeks after the injury, he was back on the court. One week later, Jan. 5, he was back in a game, helping Winthrop to a road win over Hall-Dale.

“It’s mind-boggling, and it just blows my mind what he’s able to do,” MacArthur said. “I step back sometimes coaching and look out there and say ‘Holy cow, that’s crazy. That’s madness.’ ”

It hasn’t been as simple as strapping on a brace and playing. When he first came back, Steele remembered the pain, and was hesitant to play at his normal pace. He has to ice his knees constantly, both before and after games, and even when he isn’t playing.

“Every night, I’m icing. Every morning when I wake up, I’m icing,” he said. “Every hour, I ice it, because it does swell.”

And it hurts. With each tweak, each false step, his body reminds him that something is still wrong.

“You’ll get a sharp pain, and then after that it will throb,” Steele said. “I feel like someone’s kind of like stabbing me with a knife, and then after that it will throb a lot and I kind of get the worst of it.”

But he keeps playing, and when he jumps after rebounds and trails a ballhandler around the perimeter in his role as one of the team’s steadiest defenders, it can be hard to notice any setbacks.

“One of his best attributes is his defense and his athleticism on the ball,” MacArthur said, “and you would think a kid with a torn ACL wouldn’t be able to do that.”

When Steele first returned, MacArthur and his staff had to carefully track his minutes. Now, with a regional title on the line, the count is off.

“This, right now, this is it. This is go time,” MacArthur said. “We’ve been kind of handling him with gloves for this moment, and they’re off. I need him, and he needs to give me everything he has.”

Not a problem. After all, if you ask Steele, that’s why he’s back.

“I knew that I could bounce back and it was all possible,” he said. “I just knew that I might not be 100 percent, but even with 60 percent I think I can help my team and at least do whatever I can to be there.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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