Alex Kandolin's senior basketball season at St. Thomas More wasn't supposed to end with her on the bench.
The only returning starter on a team that won its fifth straight Class A girls' state basketball title in 2018, Kandolin was supposed to be the leader on the court as the team went for its sixth straight state title. That changed before she was able to step on the floor in the regular season.
Before the first game, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee ended her season. She would be forced to watch the Cavaliers' title defense from the bench.
It was her first serious injury. A sprained ankle here and there with some other smaller injuries in her athletic career didn't compare, and it put a lot of things in perspective for her.
"You really see how much you take for granted the things you love," she said. "The atmosphere we’ve built and the dynasty we’ve had over the last few years has been incredible to be a part of. Having to sit out and not be able to help in the way I want to help or am capable of helping, it really makes me (think about) the times I complained."
Kandolin's first love is actually golf, which she will play next season at South Dakota State, but it was having her high school basketball career cut short that made her realize how much she loved the sport.
She loved the sport so much that she never missed a practice or a game. She also started to see that if she couldn't contribute on the floor, she would be able to contribute from the bench.
Alex's father is STM coach Brandon Kandolin, and he said she started to serve as an extension of the coaching staff on the bench.
"You understand different aspects of the game," he said. "You’re looking at things a different way because you aren’t out there so you’re seeing things over and over and you understand defensively what we have to do and offensively what was open, I think she’s taken in a different part of the game."
It isn't just her understanding of the mental part of the game that he's been impressed with, but he's seen her go through the mental struggle of having a serious injury and finding a way to contribute in ways she's not used to.
Brandon Kandolin knows exactly what that struggle is like. He broke his ankle before his senior football season and had to sit out, almost missing basketball season as well.
He also put her in touch with former STM standout Dru Gylten. She currently starts for the Utah women's basketball team, but in the 2017 Class A semifinals she tore her ACL, and had to miss the state championship game which the Cavaliers won.
"Probably the biggest growth is some of that mental growth. Fighting and battling with yourself, you know you want to be out there and help your team and contribute in any way, but the physical part isn’t there," he said. "It was tough for her to know that she could give a different element to the team physically on the floor. If anyone has had an injury you understand how tough it is to watch, and you know you’ve been a part and helped in certain ways."
And although she doesn't like admitting it, Alex Kandolin said she's earned a newfound respect for the role good coaching plays in the success of a team.
"I’ve learned that the coaches are always right, I hate to say it," she said laughing. "They see everything."
She said that although she embraced that role, it wasn't always easy. The urge to play doesn't go away over night.
In fact, as she has recovered from her injury the fact that she can't play has only gotten harder.
She dressed for the state tournament where STM finished sixth over the weekend in Sioux Falls. She said she appreciated the opportunity to put on the uniform one more time, but it wasn't easy.
"I’m out my brace, I’m exercising, but I can’t play. At the beginning when I had my brace it was like ‘obviously I can’t play,’ but now it’s really hard," she said. "It’s sad. It was nice and awesome that the coaches let me (dress) but every time I put it on I’m ready to go. It’s just not there."
What's helped is the support of her teammates, especially a particular group led by fellow senior Morgan Gorman known as the 'bench squad.'
The group consists of the STM reserve players and is responsible for picking up the starters with energy and enthusiasm from the bench, and she said it's been an honor to be a part of the group that can always be seen keeping everyone loose, even in the most stressful situations.
"They’re so fun, even though the games might not go the way we want they’re always there to pick us up," she said with a laugh. "Now I know the players side and the bench squad side."
The focus now turns to the golf season. She said her recovery is going better than expected, and she is potentially eyeing a return around the time of the regional golf tournament, which is May 23.
If not, the focus will turn to getting her completely ready when she arrives in Brookings for the Jackrabbits' season in the Fall.
"I’m very proud of how she’s handled it," Brandon Kandolin said. "The mental focus that she has and right now it turns to focusing on getting her healed for the next stage, whether it’s to play the high school golf season or to be completely focused and prepared to play the golf season at SDSU."