When Brenna Heater returned to competition on Jan. 17 and played about five minutes, you couldn't help but be excited for the Ashland High senior.

When Brenna Heater returned to competition on Jan. 17 and played about five minutes, you couldn't help but be excited for the Ashland High senior.

She was only about 31/2 months removed from ankle surgery and it was nice to know that she was confident enough to give it a go, albeit sparingly, for the Grizzly girls basketball team.

It stood to reason that the all-star center would likely see similar action for a few weeks, so long as her body was able and it didn't interfere with the groove the team was in.

Besides, the 6-foot-3 standout has already signed to play next year at the University of California, so discretion seemed the better part of valor.

But in only her second game back in uniform last Friday, Heater played roughly half the game and put up 20 points and 11 rebounds in a 55-36 win over Mazama.

She played another 14 minutes the following day against Eagle Point, totaling seven points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots for the Grizzlies (11-6, 5-0 SSC).

Once again, you couldn't help but be happy for Heater that she's been able to recover so quickly from what had been a lingering issue since her sophomore year. But her appearances also spurred one giant question: Why?

Why return to the court so quickly?

Why not take more time to assure everything is completely healed since her future is obviously ahead of her as a member of the Golden Bears' program?

The same questions have lingered since she began working her way back from surgery and aren't likely to subside anytime soon.

"I definitely get that a lot," the affable Heater says. "It's kind of interesting, my dad's side of the family is all into me playing and my mom's side is scared and wonders why I don't just wait it out and be perfect for Cal."

Her response to the "Why?" questions? Why not?

"Honestly, it was so hard for me being on the sidelines looking at my team and not being a part of it all," she says. "I've been working so hard to play again, so I might as well get in there once I'm cleared to play."

Her recovery has always been ahead of schedule. She remained cautious but attacked her physical therapy sessions, offering to anyone who would listen that the ankle really felt good through it all.

"Then when they told me I could do everything but play, every practice I was kinda experimenting with my ankle to see what felt right and what didn't," she says. "I tried everything I knew and nothing seemed to tweak it at all."

Her physical therapist and surgeon agreed that everything looked good and she could be cleared for a full return to duty.

Still, that wasn't enough to get Heater back on court for real. She had one more hurdle to climb.

"One big thing for me was when I did get cleared to play, I made sure to talk to all four of my coaches from Berkeley and asked them if that was OK," says Heater, who had been in contact with the Cal coaches throughout her recovery. "I told them I'm ready to play and said, 'Are you guys into me playing because I want to be there for you,' and they just said go for it. They said if you feel healthy and feel strong enough to do it, then do it. They're excited for me."

All agreed that it was best to be careful and not push it.

But sometimes things are easier said than done.

With point guard Allison Gida out of commission last Friday, Ashland head coach Tom McCracken asked Heater if she could go a little more than she had in her first game, even if it meant she might be tired and possibly not be as effective. The reply was quicker than the question, and Heater went out and played about half of each quarter.

"On Friday, I'm sure people thought I played her too much for the condition she's in, but she wants to play," says McCracken. "She really wanted to get right back in there and kind of play herself back into shape."

As testament to that, Heater had no complaints about the minutes logged in her second game back. She's here to play, and her coach knows that.

"I was really tired at the end of the game, I had a heart cramp I was so tired," she says. "But I'm glad I played that much. I thought it was good for me, and my ankle wasn't sore afterward. It was just that normal sore you get after you've been out there."

Still, Heater and McCracken set a game plan for fewer minutes the following day against Eagle Point, and that again resulted in nothing but positives. In only his first season as Ashland's coach, McCracken remains impressed that the top-50 recruit is not only willing but also able to step out with the Grizzlies.

"If she didn't want to be out there she wouldn't have to be because she's already got a scholarship and doesn't have to go out and prove anything to anybody," says McCracken. "She's not concerned about her statistics or anything like that. She's just worrying about getting back and playing and helping us get as far as she can."

Both coach and player, however, are realistic on how much impact Heater can have given her situation.

"I'm very out of shape," she admits with a chuckle. "I think when you see me play, it's not the normal Brenna. I'm known for being big and being able to run pretty fast and jump pretty high for my size. It's not awful because I'm pushing myself as hard as I can, but it's pretty bad. But that's kind of a given. I wasn't expecting to be in terrific shape the first time I stepped on the court. In a couple weeks, I think I'll be a lot better."

And now the Grizzlies will have the best of both worlds.

"In the long run, we're going to be a better basketball team because she was out," says McCracken. "I think the other players are actually better players now than if we had had her all along because they've had to step up their level of play."

Heater agrees, and remains optimistic about another run to the Class 5A state tournament.

"Each practice we're looking better and better," she says. "When Allison's healed, we're going to be a good team. I wouldn't want to play us."

Forget "Why?" She doesn't want to be left asking "What if?" when rehashing her senior year.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com