A year ago at this time, about the only thing causing Taylor Wurtz more agony than her aching back was the idea of not playing basketball.
A notorious gym rat and basketball-aholic, Wurtz tried to grit her teeth and finish out her senior season with the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
But after toughing it out for five games, Wurtz finally gave in and decided to take a medical redshirt.
“I really did not want to take the year off at all,” said Wurtz, a third-team All-Big Ten selection as a junior. “But looking back now, I’m really happy with the decision I made. It’s been a blessing in disguise because I’m able to come back and play another year.”
It was with that in mind Wurtz made it through the rehab process after undergoing microdiscectomy surgery on Jan. 3 to repair a herniated disc.
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“The first month was really difficult because I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I’d have a lot of spasms and I felt like I was never going to be able to move again.”
Those days are a distant memory as Wurtz is back to her usual ways, setting the tone for a UW team that is considered a dark horse in the Big Ten Conference.
“It’s good to have her back,” coach Bobbie Kelsey said. “It all kind of worked out. We needed her last year, too, but just having her back as a leader and a scorer and a do-all player, it’s nice to have that.’’
For the past two summers Wurtz, a 6-foot guard, has honed her skills by working out with former Madison Memorial and Marquette star Wesley Matthews, now with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. The two worked out almost daily at Matthews’ basketball court in his Madison home.
“Wes and I have been friends for awhile,” Wurtz said. “It was a great opportunity because he knows the game so well. Just being able to work out with him and see how hard he works and how passionate he is about the game, I really learned a lot.
“We worked on moves and the mental aspects of the game. He’d show me different finishes around the basket. Obviously, I can’t dunk like he can, but he showed me a lot of different tricks and moves and really added a lot to my game.”
One restriction was that she would only play half-court.
“One side of the court is Marquette and the other side is Memorial High School,” she said. “We played on the Memorial side because I really couldn’t go on the Marquette side.”
Wurtz, who averaged 16.1 points as a junior, rejoins a team with much more offensive ability. In her absence, 5-9 senior guard Morgan Paige (15.9 points) and 6-1 junior forward Jacki Gulczynski (13.0) established themselves as scorers. And this season they are joined by 6-3 junior forward Michala Johnson, who sat out last year after transferring from Connecticut.
Kelsey understands opposing teams, which were able to focus their defensive efforts on Wurtz two years ago, are going to face a more complicated problem this year.
“We can get points from all over the floor, and that takes some pressure off her if she lets it happen,” Kelsey said. “But Taylor will always be our first option because she can do so much with the ball.’’
Joining the four upperclassmen in the starting lineup will be sophomore point guard Dakota Whyte, who offers the quickness to trigger the Badgers’ up-tempo offense.
After having to play her starters extended minutes last year, Kelsey figures to have more depth this season, with sophomore guard Nicole Bauman, junior forward/guard AnnMarie Brown and sophomore guard Tessa Cichy competing for minutes.
The Badgers, however, might be without senior center Cassie Rochel, whose practice availability has been limited because of stress fractures in her back.
“If she can’t play, we’re not going to put her out there hurt,” Kelsey said. “She played hurt last year. Some of it we knew, some of it we didn’t. Some of it she could fight through and some of it she probably shouldn’t have. Knowing what we know now, we’re not going to put her out there until she’s ready.”
If Rochel has to redshirt this season, 6-4 freshman Malayna Johnson — Michala’s sister — will be pushed into extended action.
Wurtz, who graduated in May with a double major in legal studies and sociology and is pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis, is excited about the possibilities for her unexpected fifth season.
“My goal this year is to win the Big Ten championship,” she said. “I really think we can do it. We haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since my freshman year so I’d love to leave on that note and I think it’s definitely attainable.”