For Santa Rosa’s Devin Murray, the old feeling is back

Devin Murray practices with her Santa Rosa teammates Monday in preparation for the start of NCS playoffs. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Devin Murray practices with her Santa Rosa teammates Monday in preparation for the start of NCS playoffs. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The end of the road finds every athlete. All of them reach the day they have to hang up their cleats or sneakers. For Devin Murray, halfway through her senior season of high school seemed way too early.

“I had kind of an emotional break,” Murray said. “I started sobbing uncontrollably.”

It was mid-January and Murray, Santa Rosa’s most decorated girls basketball player, had just suffered her second concussion in a month, and her third in a little more than two years. She had sat through enough IMPACT testing and doctor consultations to know the reality of her situation: She was at high risk for further head injuries, and her basketball career likely was over.

That’s why one of the Panthers was smiling a little wider than the others last Friday at the Santa Rosa JC gym, though she played just 10 minutes off the bench, and though Santa Rosa was trounced 71-30 by the Cardinal Newman girls in the final of the North Bay League Tournament.

Devin Murray was back in uniform.

“It was a pretty cool feeling,” Murray said Monday. “There were a lot of people there to support me — family, friends. My teammates were super excited for me. It was just a great feeling.”

The Panthers, seeded No. 6, host No. 11 Liberty (Brentwood) on Tuesday night in the first round of the North Coast Section Division 1 playoffs, one of 14 games involving local teams. Santa Rosa’s prospects are buoyed significantly by Murray’s return.

A 6-foot-2 post player, she was a first-team All-Empire pick as a junior last year, and Santa Rosa coach Jim Gomes admits that his team struggled to adapt without her. A rotation of three front-line players filled in for Murray when she was out, each of them offering a piece of Murray’s game. The Panthers became more of a perimeter team.

“We had to adjust our offense,” Gomes said, “make our game a little faster, a little more up and down the court.”

Stepping up for Santa Rosa were senior sharpshooter Kylie Oden, who leads the team with 14.2 points per game, and sophomore Emily Codding, who averages 12.3 points and 7.7 rebounds. Things started to click along the way, and the Panthers won 14 of their final 17 games — with all three losses coming at the hands of Cardinal Newman.

The hope now is that Murray can return to form, or close to it, and give her team a boost. Her conditioning is not where it was at the beginning of the season, but she can be a force inside on offense and defense, and she’s a leader, too.

Murray was off to a fantastic start this season, averaging about 17 points and eight rebounds a game in the preseason.

ut in a game at Clayton Valley Charter on Dec. 20, she bumped heads with an opponent. The impact seemed minor, but it came with Murray’s neck bent in an awkward position.

She got dizzy and had to sit down.

Murray was soon diagnosed with a concussion, just as she had been in December 2012 after hitting her head on the floor during a preseason tournament. There is substantial research to show that an athlete’s second concussion is much greater cause for concern than her first. But it had been two years between incidents for Murray, so no one read too much into it.

That concussion came during winter break, which made it easy for Murray to rest and avoid computer screens. She quickly felt better and returned to the team on New Year’s Day.

Two weeks later, it happened again in a league game against Maria Carrillo, and this incident looked much like the previous. Again Murray bumped heads with another girl, again it didn’t look like anything serious.

“The first one two years ago was a bad one,” Devin’s father, Scott Murray, said. “It was down in Pacifica. She went down and hit the back of her head on the floor, and you could hear it all over the gym. These recent ones certainly proved she’s much more susceptible to it.”

This time, the concussion came while school was in session. “There was a lot more pressure to feel better quickly, because I was missing school,” Murray said. “It became stressful, and the headaches were for longer.”

Murray was faced with the very real prospect of having to quit the team. She and Gomes both held out hope for a return, but it was largely out of their hands.

The central figure in the loop was Dr. Todd Weitzenberg, chief of the Sports Medicine Program at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa. Weitzenberg graduated from Santa Rosa High in 1987, but he had significant concerns about the Panthers’ best girls basketball player.

After a brief period of rest, Murray started attending practice to offer suggestions and moral support to her teammates. She wasn’t thrilled with the role.

“I just kind of felt like a ghost,” Murray said. “I was there helping, trying to be as supportive as I could, but there’s only so much you can do from the bench.”

Meanwhile, Murray did her best to stay in shape. She ran, did yoga and pilates, and worked out with Santa Rosa High trainer Matt Tsurumoto. After a few weeks, she realized she wasn’t getting headaches, even after hard workouts. She also found she was dearly missing basketball as the playoffs drew nearer.

She asked her parents, Scott Murray and Brugitta Hunter, about returning to the team.

“We had kind of written it off,” Scott Murray said. “But as time went on, we saw her improving very quickly. We never brought it up during that time. Nobody talked about it until the middle of last week. She said, ‘I’ve been feeling really good. I’d like give it a shot.’ I thought, wow, I didn’t see that coming.”

Devin’s parents felt trepidation, but they knew she was getting some of the best oversight in Sonoma County. In addition to Weitzenberg and Tsurumoto, Murray had been working with Santa Rosa JC head athletic trainer Monica Ohkubo, who has studied concussion treatment extensively.

If all of them consented to a return, Murray’s parents told her, they would let her play. All of them signed off.

Last Thursday, Murray retook the IMPACT test, which measures cognitive agility, and the results indicated she was right around her baseline scores. Weitzenberg wrote Murray a note to take to the Cardinal Newman game, and there she was, battling for rebounds.

Scott Murray said he and Hunter was “a little bit on pins and needles” watching their daughter play, but they trust Devin to make good decisions. For her part, Devin Murray totally understands their concern.

“My parents were really wanting me play it safe,” Murray said. “My head is something I have to use for the rest of my life.”

Devin Murray practices with her Santa Rosa teammates Monday in preparation for the start of NCS playoffs. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Devin Murray practices with her Santa Rosa teammates Monday in preparation for the start of NCS playoffs. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)