Tyler Thacker remembers the 2013 16th Region championship game like it was yesterday.
Rowan County was playing for its third straight 16th Region title and trip to Rupp Arena. The Vikings were facing a Fleming County team that had their number the whole season.
“I remember us getting up 12 and them making a little bit of a run at us,” Thacker said. “I remember coming up on my second three and I pull up and (Fleming assistant coach) Lamont Taylor behind me yells out before it even goes in, ‘There’s another.’”
Rowan County had Fleming County on the ropes. They caught fire in the first 12 minutes of the game and looked to be on their way to possibly punching their ticket to the state tournament.
But something happened that immediately darkened Rowan County’s hopes. A few minutes into the second quarter, Thacker was driving into the lane and planted his knee awkwardly, collapsing in pain.
“It felt like the building just let air out,” Thacker said. “You could tell we had them on their heels. When I fell, it was bad.”
Tyler had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
“I knew something bad had happened but I’ve had so many problems with my IT band,” Thacker said. “I’m not a medical expert but when we were in the locker room the trainers said it was the ACL.”
Rowan County coach Shawn Thacker, Tyler’s father, did not see what happened initially.
“When he went down, I saw one of his teammates cutting to the basket and as coach you try to analyze should he have passed that because the referees called a walk,” Shawn said. “I didn’t see it because I had more of a panoramic view of the court in my mind. I wasn’t focused on Tyler driving to the basket.”
Assistant coach Jordan Mann told Shawn he would take care of Tyler and he should focus on the team.
“That’s when it kind of hit me that it could be something serious,” Shawn said.
Rowan County went on to lose, 60-45. Thacker had six points, four rebounds and three assists in the first half. He watched the second half from the bench, holding to his crutches.
“It hurt because I wanted to be playing with my teammates and, even though it wasn’t my fault, I felt like I let my teammates down,” Tyler said. “We wanted a three-peat and I felt like we were on the verge of it. We were right there. If that hadn’t happened, I would like to think the outcome would have changed.”
“I just hurt for our kids and I hurt for him,” Shawn said. “It was just a hard night.”
After the swelling went down, Tyler had surgery on March 22 in Lexington to repair the damage. The rehabilitation began a few weeks later with Rowan County trainer Ryan Alderman.
“It was the most pain I’ve ever felt,” Tyler said. “It was like trying to walk again. It was terrible.”
“Injuries as a coach are tough,” Shawn said. “Everything about that night was hard. I hated it for (Rowan baseball) coach (Jason) Davis. He misses his whole junior year of baseball. You hate as a coach when you’ve got a multi-sport athlete get hurt in your sport. One of the tougher part of our jobs is injuries.”
At no point during the rehab did Tyler give up.
“I never came down from almost having that feeling of cutting down the nets again,” Tyler said. “It would have been a lot more special last year than the previous two because I wasn’t a part of the core that won the championships.”
Tyler had surgery on his shoulder a few years ago as well, so he knew building his knee up would require a lot of time and effort and patience.
“He gets a lot of credit for his labrum surgery and his knee surgery,” Shawn said. “The amount of time and effort they have to put in to recover to come back at full strength is hard. We just encourage him to take his time and he’ll be back at full strength.”
Tyler wants to prove to college coaches that the knee is healed. He is the Vikings’ leading returning scorer at 14.3 points per game.
But, above all else, he wants another crack at playing in the state tournament.
“This year is my senior year so it’s make or break,” Tyler said. “It’s this year or I’ll never play on that Rupp Arena floor again. My teammates are a main part, too, because I need to get back for them. We’re a very good basketball team and I need to do my part to get out on the floor with them.”
The knee is not 100 percent but Tyler said it could be by January. He is being limited in practice, which Tyler admits is frustrating because he wants to go at full speed.
“I don’t really play with much care and that scares my dad and my trainer because they tell me to take it easy because they don’t give out championships in November,” Tyler said. “Mentally I’m there, but my body just has to catch up with me.”
“We don’t want to play him a lot early,” Shawn said. “We don’t want to have an injury because we overused it and not get him in the proper condition he needs to be in to not reinjure it.”
Tyler Thacker might not be 100 percent now, but when he is, he believes the Vikings could be the best team in the 16th Region.
And he will not rest unless he gets back to where he once was.