BANGOR, Maine — Ali Nalivaika is an imposing presence on the basketball court.
The problem has been, the University of Maine’s 6-foot-4 post player hasn’t been on the floor for two full seasons.
After three surgeries on her right knee, the senior from Worcester, Mass., appears to be ready to contribute for coach Richard Barron’s Black Bears.
“It’s been such a journey the past two years, but I’m just happy to be back on the floor,” Nalivaika said Wednesday during UMaine’s media day at the Cross Insurance Center.
Nalivaika had been sidelined since tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during the team’s first pickup game in 2011. She had surgery, only to suffer a setback during her rehabilitation five months later.
“I tore it again. I think it was just an unlucky incident,” she said. I took a wrong turn.”
Nalivaika worked her way back, only to suffer another ACL tear in September 2012. She admitted she thought about giving up on basketball.
“I had a few of those moments during rehab but, honestly, it was my team that helped me through it,” she said.
Nalivaika was cleared for contact in August and has been back on the court with her teammates throughout preseason workouts.
“We were very cautious and slow in bringing her back after the third surgery,” Barron said. “She definitely wanted to play again.”
Nalivaika’s persistence and hard work have not been lost on her teammates.
“I’ve watched Ali work her heart out to get back on the court. It was sad to see it not go the way she wanted the past two years,” said junior Courtney Anderson of Greene. “But she never stopped working and she never stopped leading our team on the sideline.”
She shot 44 percent from the field and connected on 74 percent of her free throws.
Nalivaika is trying to remember what that felt like as she adapts to a new coach and a different philosophy.
“Ali’s doing a really good job,” Barron said. “She’s kind of like a freshman. It’s been so long since she’s played and she hasn’t played for me. She understands the concepts, but being able to execute them in real time is going to be her progression.”
Barron expects growth from Nalivaika. He is impressed with her shooting touch and range but said she must improve her mobility.
Nalivaika said the challenges during this preseason have been both physical and mental.
“Mostly, it was just being in game shape and conditioned. I think that’s come back quickly, though,” Nalivaika said. “Also, just learning the plays. I haven’t been on the court in two years.”
While she may not have put on the uniform, Nalivaika has nonetheless been a force on the team.
“Ali’s been a great leader off the floor while she was injured,” said classmate Ashleigh Roberts. “She was somebody that would be in your ear.”
Now, the Black Bears hope to be able to return the favor.
“Now that she’s on the floor, she’s somebody that’s trying to get re-adjusted to playing,” Roberts said. “Now it’s our team to be in her ear, giving her encouragement.”
Nalivaika’s role has yet to be determined. However, with Corinne Wellington (graduation) and Danielle Walczak (left team) gone, there is playing time to be earned in the post.
“I think adjusting to playing at game speed is really the biggest thing for her,” Barron said.
A cautiously optimistic Nalivaika isn’t looking too far ahead.
She said she wants to “just stay healthy and contribute as much as I can to the team.”