KANSAS CITY – Match Burnham’s path back to the court took longer than expected.
The sweet-shooting sophomore’s reinstatement came on the NAIA’s biggest stage, the national tournament, but getting there took six weeks of rehabilitation -- and a lot of hope.
Now he’s played some critical minutes as Carroll defeated Mount Mercy in Round 1 of the tournament, and he’ll surely figure to be a key cog against Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Round 2 Friday at 10:15 a.m.
Admittedly, he had no idea how much he’d play after being out for nearly two months.
That time away started in January.
A sharp pain he felt on the top of his wrist during a game against Montana Western on Jan. 19 was nothing, he thought. After all, he’d scored 18 points as Carroll College went into Dillon and came away with a win to avenge an earlier loss.
An initial X-ray came back inconclusive. Burnham would play another game, hampered by the injury.
“Thought I tweaked it a little bit,” he said. “I played against Rocky. I fell on it again in the Rocky game and then I knew it hurt more than it probably should.”
Burnham had an MRI done and the fracture was revealed -- the area of his wrist damaged didn’t have enough blood flow to signal an injury on the earlier X-ray -- and Burnham’s six-week clock began to tick.
“It didn’t’ really register,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be a six-week thing. I thought I would tape it for a game and then it would be back to normal. I didn’t think it would take that long.”
Initially, the Saints termed his leave of absence "indefinite." Hopefully, they thought, Burnham would make a return during basketball’s biggest month, March.
Burnham couldn’t believe the hiatus.
Even after trainer Jeff Birchell and others warned they figured it would be a fracture, Burnham thought otherwise. The diagnosis left him surprised.
With a return in mind, Burnham conditioned with his teammates. As players took part in the physical, competitive nature of Saints’ practices, Burnham honed his left hand, flipping shots up on the sidelines. When the losing team of a drill would go to run, the sophomore hopped in.
“It was hard,” he said. “My teammates are doing it, so I figured I might as well, too. I tried to stay consistent with what I was doing (before the injury), shooting as much as I could, lifting with trainers. Trying to make it as normal as possible.”
Avoiding a feeling of helplessness became impossible 11 days after his last game. As Carroll battled a potent Lewis-Clark State in Helena, another crucial piece of the frontcourt went down. Carroll lost Oliver Carr for the season with an ACL tear. Burnham could only watch from the sideline as his good friend hobbled from the court.
“Oli is a huge part of our team,” Burnham said. “We were all upset and sad for him. It sucked. It was a bad moment. There was nothing I could do about it, but our team held strong and won a championship.”
Though the Saints had a rough patch, dropping two games after the injury, they did bounce back and win the Frontier’s regular season and postseason titles. Burnham, again, could only support from the sideline.
“Being on the sideline is not fun,” he said. “The good thing about it is I was still able to cheer on our teammates and be there for them, which was nice. And it’s Zach’s senior year, so we all want to be there for Zach. I want to be as much of a part of it as I can. It was rough not playing, but also just being there was nice.”
At 10:10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 8, a doctor unshackled Burnham’s right wrist. Practice was scheduled for 4 p.m. but Burnham couldn’t wait. Had his muscles atrophied in the six weeks since their last use? Could he still shoot? What wouldhbe now be able to do?
“I was in the gym at about 2 p.m. and testing it out and doing some rehab,” he said. “It felt way better than expected. It was just like normal.”
His wrist is good. He’s playing unafraid, and embracing all the contact he can get. He only had two full practices and several “half-practices” before Wednesday's game. Even then, Burnham was unsure of his role going into the national tournament. The Saints had found ways to win without the 6-foot-8 shooter. Where did he factor in now?
“I told Coach that I was perfectly fine playing no minutes or playing as much as he wanted me to,” Burnham said. “He said if I’m able to play, he’ll throw me in there. It was fun. I was nervous, but it was fun.”
Burnham showed no signs of rust, playing 13 minutes and shooting 2 for 7 for seven points while picking up four fouls and four turnovers. His play was crucial, as he often spelled starter Ryan Imhoff, who found himself in early foul trouble.
“I’m still not all the way there yet,” he said. “I still have a lot to improve on in this little period.”
And the Saints will need him against SAGU (24-9), a well-coached Texas team out of the Sooner Athletic Conference, which has a history of producing strong teams.
The Lions are stocked with a high-scoring guard in Keyunta Watkins, who averages 18.9 points per night, and a ton of height, with four 6-6 players and a 6-8 guard, Isaak Rowe, who averages 12.7 points per night, the second best on his team.
One thing is for sure: When Burnham’s called on, he’ll be ready to go.