GREENFORD-Twelve months ago, South Range senior wide receiver Zach Thorpe began his month of November having just watched a whole football season slip by with him on the sidelines. After suffering a torn ACL in the opening game of the 2012 season, Thorpe was six weeks removed from surgery and facing a long, grueling winter of rehab.
"It was demoralizing getting hurt in the first game last season," Thorpe said. "I was going to start on both offense and defense and to have the season end without getting to play was really tough."
Exactly one year later, the emotions have swung completely the other way.
Last Friday, with South Range and Cuyahoga Heights tied at 28 in the third quarter of their Div. VI playoff game, Thorpe hauled in a 58 yard touchdown pass which put the Raiders ahead to stay in their 49-42 win, the program's first playoff victory in six years.
It's all been part of a comeback year which has seen Thorpe play a vital role in the Raiders' resurgent 10-0 regular season. The senior has started full time at both wide receiver and defensive back, leading the Raiders in receiving yards (416) and touchdown catches (6), while finishing second to Bryce Allen with 17 receptions.
"All I wanted to do after I got hurt was try and rehab as much as possible to get back to normal," Thorpe said. "To be able to come back healthy for my senior season and be a part of this with guys I've been playing with since seventh grade is an awesome feeling."
"We really missed Zach last year," South Range coach Dan Yeagley said. "He's given us an ingredient on both offense and defense that we really needed and has been absolutely critical to our success this season."
After winning a starting spot at wingback as a sophomore, Thorpe was expected to be a major contributor as a two-way starter in 2012 before the season came to a sudden halt. In the first quarter of the Raiders season-opener versus Warren JFK Thorpe felt a tweak in his right knee but kept playing. Later in the quarter, the same knee got twisted around on a tackle, causing it to blow out.
"At first I didn't think it was quite that serious," Thorpe said. "But then I went to the doctor later that week and he broke the news that I'd torn my ACL and would need 6-7 months to recover."
Thorpe had surgery two weeks after the JFK game, followed by two months of stretching exercises to regain flexibility. After that came a few more months of physical therapy to try and build back some of the strength that had been lost.
"It was a slow process," Thorpe said. "It would get to the point where I wanted to move to the next step and start doing other stuff on my leg but the doctors wouldn't allow it. They said that until the ligament was fully healed, it wouldn't take a lot to re-tear it and then I would have to start the process all over again."
Prior to getting hurt, Thorpe had been a starter on the Raiders jayvee basketball team. While the injury wiped away any chance at competing for a varsity spot, Thorpe was motivated to recover in time for baseball season. After starting at third base as a freshman, Thorpe was a first-team all-conference shortstop as a sophomore and wanted badly to come back and contribute.
"That was my main goal," Thorpe said. "I wanted to be back for the first game of baseball season. I began doing some drills and swinging a bat a few weeks before the season started and felt pretty good. I was then cleared to return to practice."
Back, at his familiar shortstop position, Thorpe helped anchor the Raiders defense while turning in a batting average that approached .400 as South Range won the Inter-Tri County League upper tier and advanced to the district final.
"Coming into the year, we weren't sure we were going to have Zach, but he did a great job in his rehab," South Range baseball coach Dan Hanek said. "I didn't see any decrease at all in his range at shortstop. He's a guy that brings outstanding defense at a critical position as well as a lot of leadership. It would've been a huge hole for us to fill."
However, even as Thorpe has completed a successful return to competition, the knee still does not feel 100 percent.
"To this day it still feels off," Thorpe said. "The strength is not where it was before the injury. Getting back to football was a little bit of a battle mentally. In the back of your mind you're always hoping it doesn't happen again. I've been lucky this year. Nobody has really hit my knee that hard and it's held up."
However, the wear and tear has Thorpe thinking that his basketball career was likely at an end.
"I don't think my knee is going to let me play basketball," Thorpe said. "I would like to take some time off and rest for baseball season."
For now though, the focus is football, and on trying to extend the Raiders season with a second-round win over Mogadore on Friday.
At times during the season, the stress on Thorpe's knee caused Yeagley to rest him for entire games on offense and start him only at defensive back in an effort to make sure performances like his four reception 108 yard effort last week were possible at the end of the year.
"He definitely has more problems on offense when he has to cut, on defense the knee doesn't take as much of a beating" Yeagley said. "There have been certain games where we've tried to give him a rest to keep him fresh for the whole season. So far it has worked out pretty well. He worked really hard to come back and it's nice to see him having this kind of year."