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Unleashed: What Will Heather Corral Bull Through Next
Release: 10/24/2012
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Oct. 24, 2012

By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.

SEATTLE - The fact Heather Corral is on the same college team as Kristi Kingma, the Huskies' all-conference scorer who has known her since she was a toddler, is a story only Corral can tell.

One of many, actually.

"I'm still very young," Corral, Washington's determined and tested freshman, told me last week on the east court of Alaska Airlines Arena. "But not everybody my age can say they know somebody who's had cancer. Who's had a sister who's had four ankle surgeries. Who's had a best friend who had knee surgery. I've had four knee surgeries ... Most people can't say that, at all.

"I'd say in my mind I feel 15.

"But my body? 30."

She giggled at that.

She's been through more than most perhaps twice her age. Yet she's still a teenager, still weeks away from playing her first college game for the Huskies as their new, 6-foot-1 shooter and fierce defender.

Corral was Katie Collier's hotel roommate on their official recruiting visit to UW in late September 2011, the day Collier woke up bleeding from her mouth. Later that night Collier, a McDonald's High School All-American from Seattle Christian, was diagnosed with leukemia.

Now Corral and Collier are not only Huskies teammates, numbers 14 and 13 in purple, gold and white, but best friends. With so many deep reasons why.

As for Kingma, Corral and the Huskies' fifth-year senior scorer have known each other "since I was learning to walk," Heather says. Kingma was best friends with Heather's older sister by four years almost to the day, Ashley.

Kingma was over the Corrals' place so much she could have been Heather's babysitter when the two families lived in the north Seattle suburb of Mill Creek a decade ago. The Corrals moved to southwestern Washington when Heather was in grade school.

"I mean, she's 4½ years younger than me," Kingma says now, her eyes rising with her voice. "It wasn't like, `Oh, I'm going to be playing with you someday.'

"And now I am."

I'd say in my mind I feel 15. But my body? 30.

Oh, one Corral girl figured she'd perhaps play college ball with Kingma -- Ashley, the one who is now playing professionally in China.

"It's funny: She and my sister were always talking how they were going to be playing college basketball together," Heather says, "and then for me to be playing with her was a weird coincidence."

"Weird" is one way to put it.

Corral and Kingma both can "thank" reconstructive knee surgeries for this unexpected reunion as Huskies - though neither would wish their injuries or the subsequent, grueling rehabilitations on anyone.

Instead of being done with her Huskies career, Kingma is running smoothly through preseason practices while wearing a brace on her right knee. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in that during an exhibition game in Norway during the summer of 2011 and redshirted last season.

Corral is wearing a black-and-yellow brace on her left knee throughout her first practices for UW coach Kevin McGuff. She had reconstructive surgery on that knee to repair a complete rupture of her ACL while a junior at Prairie High School in Vancouver, Wash., in 2011 -- eight months before Kingma blew out her knee. Corral had a follow-up surgery to clean up knee cartilage in June.

She also has scars on her right knee. While repairing a torn meniscus there during her sophomore year at Prairie, surgeons drilled holes in January 2010 to regenerate cartilage. The procedure is called microfracture surgery. It's much more common with 20- or 30-something professional athletes than 16-year-old amateur ones.

In all, Corral has had four knee surgeries in the last three years.

"Basically, my right knee is bone on bone," she said. "There's no cartilage in there."

Ashley, the all-time leader in 3-pointers at USC who this month signed a professional contract to play in China, has had the four ankle surgeries.

Heather calls her big sister her role model - and she calls her a lot. They talk regularly on China-to-Seattle calls through an app on their cell phones. They also have a 10-year-old sister, Allison. She is playing youth basketball and soccer back in Vancouver.

"From Ashley I've learned you are going to have a lot of adversity throughout your career, whether it's playing time, or for her it was injuries," Heather says. "With USC being very high in academics I've also learned it's possible to do well academically as well as being a good athlete."

Basically, my right knee is bone on bone. There's no cartilage in there.

As you may be able to tell by now, with the Corrals anything is possible.

Resiliency wasn't just a virtue of Heather's during high school. It was a common, daily part of her life. Another tool thrown inside the backpack she wore each day to years of lonely rehabilitation far from the court and the points and the victories.

"I think anyone would have a why-me moment going through that. But after the first one I knew I could get through it," she said of the successive knee surgeries.

She not only got through it, she excelled past it. Despite all the knee pain and operations, despite playing in the daunting shadow cast by her older sister - Ashley was a high-school All-American at Prairie -- Heather led the Falcons to the Washington state Class 3A final seven months ago. She was the state tournament's MVP. She was The Associated Press' state player of the year.

And she "only" averaged 13 points a game as a senior. She was so valuable defensively as well as offensively to Prairie, when her shot was off in the state title game she nearly single-handedly throttled Franklin by leading Prairie's press defense. She had six steals. She took charges. She took Franklin out of its offense and out of the championship game.

She had as many scholarship offers as she's had knee surgeries the last three years -- from Gonzaga, Kentucky, Colorado, and Washington.

She never considered USC.

"That was my biggest thing. I told Ashley, I followed her into high school. I don't want to follow her into college," Heather said.

"I was very determined. I was very determined to find my own thing."

First, though, Heather had to wean herself from all the SC gear she had stockpiled from Ashley four years.

"It was very tough. I had four great Christmases with the USC gear.

"But I had to trade for the purple."

In doing so, she took Ashley's advice to look far beyond basketball when choosing a school.

"Her biggest piece of advice was, if basketball were to be taken from you at any moment where would you want to go to school, because of the school?" Heather says. "Where would you want to be for four years?"

The only place she wanted to be was at Washington.

"I want to be doctor, so ...," Heather says, without elaboration.

None is needed. Not with world-renowned UW Medical Center across Montlake Boulevard from where we were talking.

I love Seattle. I can always go see my family, as well as achieving all my career goals.

"And I love Seattle," she said last month on Marv Harshman Court during her first week of Huskies individual workouts. "I can always go see my family, as well as achieving all my career goals."

Specifically, Corral wants to be a surgeon. She joked she wants to be one of people who have operated on her four times, plus her best friend last month.

Collier, sitting next to her on the edge of Harshman Court, gave Corral a fist bump for that.

FUNNY. AND PERFECTLY FITTING

Corral and Collier are now intricately linked, probably for life.

Experiencing a brush with death together can do that to a pair of teenagers. Or anyone.

On Sept. 24, 2011, Corral and Collier were roommates on that official recruiting visit. They were planning to attend that afternoon's football game between Washington and Colorado at Husky Stadium.

"In the hotel room I was yelling at Heather, `Wake up! There's blood all over my pillow!'" Collier remembers.

Collier was bleeding from her mouth. She was exhausted. She continued to bleed all day and eventually went to a Seattle-area hospital that night. Doctors in the emergency room there said she was perhaps a day or two from bleeding to death.

I detailed Katie's remarkable journey last month.

And Corral was there for her pal through all of it.

Through chemotherapy, including daily drips of arsenic, Collier conquered leukemia. Now she and Corral are roommates again, this time in a UW dorm.

"It's so funny that we both ended up here now, and are rooming together," Collier says.

Funny. And perfectly fitting.

Now, Corral is giving Collier pointers on how to rehabilitate a reconstructed knee. This summer, just months after beating cancer, Collier tore her ACL. Collier is rehabbing now, out for this entire Huskies season while redshirting.

"I've told her, `It's going to hurt. It's going to hurt more than you think it will,'" Corral said of Katie's rehab. "But you are going to end up with a knee that is three times as strong.

"It's going to push you to your limits. But when you get back it's going to be the greatest feeling to get back out on that court."

As she prepared to take jump shots and get down in her defensive stance to apply McGuff's signature pressure defense in practice, I asked Corral if she has any fears or limitations on the court because of her knees.

"There are times I have scares," she admitted, "but once I start playing I forget I've torn my ACL. People are like, `You can't do that. Your knees aren't (ready).' People always remind me, `Heather you can't run outside. Your knees won't hold up.' And I'm like, `Why?'

"I almost forget myself that my knees are hurt."

Collier, a do-it-all, 6-3 scorer, was expected to be Washington's versatile, inside scoring force to compliment Kingma's return outside this season. With Collier out for the year, Corral's role in the offense may be much more prominent and immediate than she or the Huskies had expected.

For years, Heather has sought to distance herself from her older sister's shadow through a more slashing and hard-nosed defensive style of play, a contrast to Ashley's deadly outside shooting. She said that difference helped diffuse some of the inevitable comparisons people drew between the siblings while Heather followed Ashley through Prairie High.

Yet so far Corral has impressed UW's coaches with her shooting accuracy heading into Tuesday's home exhibition against Concordia (Ore.) and the Nov. 9 opener against Saint Mary's.

Asked for her role on this Huskies team Heather says, "Believe it or not, I think I might fit in like Ashley - as a shooter."

She laughed at the irony.

"That's where they have me, and that's where I am comfortable," she said, adding McGuff's up-tempo, motion offense is "very similar to the offense my high school ran.

"So I'm lucky."

I say it's far more than luck that has pushed Heather Corral through four knee surgeries, through cancer striking her best friend, to get her here, playing basketball for the Huskies.

Exactly where she's always wanted to be.

About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to email Gregg Bell.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.

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