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Healthy again, Hunter leading South Medford charge

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Feeling as healthy as she’s been since a 2019 knee injury, South’s star junior guard is guiding Panthers’ quest for a state title

There are still times when Donovyn Hunter looks down at her right knee and is reminded of the journey that she’s been on for the past 2 1/2 years.

The post-ACL injury world for Hunter, South Medford’s star junior guard, has been a test of patience and wide-ranging emotions while her basketball career has faced major adversity.

“When I thoroughly sit and think about it, it’s scary,” said Hunter, who suffered a torn ACL in June of 2019 and carries the scar to show for it. “When I’m in the game and when I’m practicing, I don’t think about it. But I can still look down at my legs and see the difference, so it’s a reminder for me. Physical therapy will now be a part of everything I do from now, but it’s crazy to think about.

“I wouldn’t say I’m glad I went through it, but it definitely taught me a lot.”

These days, Hunter certainly looks the part of the middle school phenom who was getting calls from Pac-12 schools well before her injury.

A student of the game and tireless worker toward the tools of her trade, Hunter was billed as one of the top up-and-comers in Oregon — if not the nation — before she even donned a Panther uniform.

With her exploits on both ends of the floor this winter, Hunter has helped guide South Medford to a 7-2 record and No. 4 ranking in the latest Class 6A coaches poll.

But when she thinks back to that fateful June moment — just mere months before her high school career was set to begin to much fanfare — there’s always going to be the memory of what caused her injury, and what the first days and weeks of recovery were like following ACL and meniscus surgery in her right knee.

“It taught me patience, trusting in the Lord’s process, lots of prayer,” said Hunter. “I think the biggest thing with an injury is the mental part rather than the physical. That definitely took a toll on me, but now coming out of it, practices I don’t take for granted and wanting to work two times harder, it taught me that.”

Patience certainly had to come in bunches.

It wasn’t until the six-month mark after surgery before she could start jogging.

Add on a few months before she could even entertain the idea of making basketball-like movements like cutting to the basket.

All the while, she was traveling with South’s varsity team as the Panthers made it all the way to Portland at the state tournament before the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

“It was tough,” said Hunter of being forced to watch from the bench. “I didn’t realize it was actually happening to me until the actual season started. Missing practices to be at physical therapy was even annoying. I think I just learned a lot about my team just from sitting and watching.”

The long-awaited debut in a South jersey came last spring during the COVID-abbreviated season. Hunter averaged 12.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game for a senior-laden Panthers team that ran the table, going 13-0 and winning the 6A/5A culminating week tournament in Portland.

It was toward the end of the spring season in which Hunter, after all those hours of physical therapy and rehab, started to feel like her old self again.

“My brace was a mental block for me,” said Hunter, “and it kinda took away feeling like I was cleared because I still had a big brace on my leg. But, for this season, this is probably the first time I’ve felt confident in two years because I’m just free, I’m pain free, my leg feels strong. I still don’t feel any zings or have any trouble with it.”

Free of her knee brace and full of confidence, Hunter has looked as much like the star-in-the-making she was tapped to be entering high school as ever before.

Through South’s first nine games this season, Hunter is averaging 26 points, 4.8 steals, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. She’s made 65% of her field goal attempts (87-for-133), while knocking down nearly 90% of her free throws.

She’s the Panthers’ leading scorer on offense while consistently showing why she’s one of South’s best defenders on the other end of the floor.

“This is the first year that we’re seeing that this is what the forecast was supposed to look like back when she was a freshman,” South Medford head coach Tom Cole said. “She built some rhythm in the spring, goes into the summer, plays for a team that won the Nike Nationals EYBL Championship with the Cal Stars and then comes back and, in a traditional season, has obviously been one of the best players in Oregon.”

“Finally, she’s now at a place where we’re two years since that injury and she’s not using the brace,” Cole added. “To me, that’s the biggest reflection of kids who have these ACL injuries — when you’re not in the brace anymore, it says a lot about the confidence you have in that leg.”

The explosiveness is back, as is the look of a player who was getting the attention of some of the best women’s basketball schools on the West Coast when she was in eighth grade at Hedrick Middle School.

“I’m definitely the closest to where I was before,” said Hunter. “It’s hard to compare because I had so many titles and things I was achieving before I got hurt, so right now I feel like I’m still trying to prove myself that I’m back and I am going to go back to normal. But definitely with the points I’m scoring, the efforts I’m putting in and just being able to last longer than I was before, I’d say I’m close to what I was before.”

Through it all, Hunter has tried to maintain a level head. She said she relied on her faith, her friends and her family to get her through the tough and uncertain times.

And even though she headlines one of the best teams in the state, Cole knows that when it comes to Hunter, the mindset is always going to be about the team more than the individual accolades that may come her way.

It’s something that both player and coach feel sets the tone for the rest of the team.

“The thing about her is that she’s super unselfish,” said Cole. “She’s never felt like she has to be defined by one facet of the game. Scoring, for her, is obviously something she does well, but it’s not something she feels like it has to be her determination of if she had a good game. She’s just content knowing she defensively did her role and helped the team win without having any kind of negativity if she wasn’t in the box score with points.”

South Medford, which went nearly a month without playing a game before its recent three-game road trip in California, has a meeting with Class 5A’s No. 1-ranked team, Willamette, at 7 tonight before its Southwest Conference opener less than 24 hours later at South Eugene.

As has been the case for years now, the Panthers have visions of competing to be the best in 6A, and have fully embraced the challenge of trying to get to the mountaintop again.

“Our goal is to be state champs,” Hunter said without hesitation. “For any high school program that has the chance to do that, that’s going to be their goal. We have a lot of work to do, but our goal is definitely that and whatever I can do — whether it’s mentally or hyping someone up or bringing myself to a higher standard which pushes everyone else — if that’s what I have to do, then what’s what I’m going to do.”

No matter if it’s scoring 10 points or 30, Hunter has proven she can be the leading force for a team with big-time aspirations.

Either way, Hunter’s play and ever-present appreciation for being able to confidently do what she loves continues to speak for itself.

It’s also led to a good number of the schools that were contacting her three years ago to be back in the picture after seeing her response to knee surgery.

More importantly, though, Hunter is happy in her continued Panther journey and a brace-free existence.

“It’s refreshing,” said Hunter. “Obviously practices and the pressure of (winning the culminating week tournament) last year, it’s a lot — especially with the newer people. But I think, especially on trips and bus rides, it’s definitely brought us closer. The bond that you have with the team is way different than a bond you have with anybody else. This team’s probably the most fun in terms of the teams we’ve had in the past.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Donovyn Hunter before practice on Dennis Murphy Court at South Medford High.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Donovyn Hunter before practice on Dennis Murphy Court at South Medford High.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune South Medford’s Donovyn Hunter, seen here in action earlier this season against Crater, is averaging 26 points per game during her junior year.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune South Medford’s Donovyn Hunter, in action during the spring 2021 season, is seen sporting a knee brace on her right leg.