CORINTH, Maine — It was a circumstance that Central High School girls basketball coach Diane Rollins knew her team would have to deal with in a few months. Mackenzie “Max” McHugh would graduate and would no longer be the spark for the Red Devils.
It turned out that moment came more abruptly.
McHugh, a senior point guard and captain this year who led Central to the state Class C girls basketball championship last March, was injured in a car accident the morning of Jan. 9. The resulting compound fracture of her right leg means her high school basketball career likely is over.
“The team is having to regroup without her sooner than [at] graduation,” said Rollins.
The first chance they had to regroup was at that night’s practice, which saw very little actual practicing, according to Rollins.
“There was more talk and lot of crying,” she said.
Rollins said she got a call that morning from her daughter, Jenny, who is also a volunteer assistant coach, telling her about the accident and saying she should get to the scene.
“I could tell by looking at the car that [McHugh] would not be at practice,” said Diane Rollins.
The official report from the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office says distracted driving may have contributed to the head-on accident, but the investigation is ongoing.
A woman and 6-year-old girl in the other car were also hospitalized. The woman and McHugh have been released, but the young girl is still at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, according to the EMMC nursing supervisor.
When senior guard Emylee Miles — also a captain along with sophomore forward Bree Skolfield — learned of the accident, she was stunned.
“I didn’t want to believe it,” Miles said.
“I couldn’t even believe it,” said Skolfield. “It was really heartbreaking.”
“I’m just glad it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and she’s all right,” said Miles.
The team members took it upon themselves to visit McHugh in the hospital, bringing her little gifts to help her keep her spirits up.
“The kids, I believe, have come closer together,” said Rollins.
On the court, Miles and Skolfield now are having to take over some of the duties that McHugh handled.
“I’m trying to get the other captains to take charge on the floor,” said Rollins. “Max was the vocal leader. This is a difficult role for them.”
It was a role Miles and Skolfield had not expected to play.
Skolfield, who at 6 feet tall is a commanding presence around the basket, is having to make her presence felt all over the court.
“I’ve had to step up to be more of a leader,” she said.
Miles has been moved from the wing to point guard, a position she is familiar with but a role she hasn’t performed very often.
“It’s a big change,” Miles said. “Once in awhile I would bring up the ball if we were running a play for Max.”
“She has adjusted well,” said Skolfield.
The two are having to work together more closely now because McHugh had worked with Skolfield mostly.
“Max knew what kind of pass I liked and what kind of plays to run,” said Skolfield. “With Emylee, we’re learning to work together.”
The other players are also having to help pick up the 10 points and two assists per game she averaged, but McHugh’s absence is especially noticeable on defense. The 5-5 McHugh averaged three steals and two rebounds.
“Defense is where she’s a hard person to replace,” said Rollins. “She says, ‘It excites me when they say, oh, she’s got me.’
“It’s certainly an adjustment, but we’re working on it.”
They also are having to remember that she’s not on the floor. In the heat of a practice or a game, it has been a reflex to turn and expect to see her.
“It happens a lot,” said Miles. “I’m used to handing off the ball to let her run things.”
“It’s hard for me to look out there and not see her there,” said Rollins.
The team seems to be adjusting smoothly, even if the game scores don’t show it. The Red Devils lost to Lee Academy 39-34 the next night after the accident. On Saturday, they lost to Orono 41-26. Both games were at home.
“For not having one of our key players, I think we’ve done pretty well,” said Miles.
Rollins said she was encouraged by the Orono game.
“When we played them before [at Orono], we gave up 54 points,” she said.
“I’m trying to get the kids to play hard like Max, and I think they’ve bought into it,” Rollins added. “They’re very positive with each other.”
The Red Devils are 3-7 and in 11th place in the Eastern Maine Class C Heal points, the final spot for making the tournament field.
Central hosts Sumner of East Sullivan next on Friday night.
Rollins is positive McHugh, who had already broken each leg once before this accident, probably will play basketball in college somewhere.
“It’ll take her a while [to heal completely], but she’ll play again,” said Rollins.
Rollins believes this new experience will continue to be beneficial for the rest of her players.
“I always think of athletics as another classroom. The 10 ladies I have now will be successful, and not just in basketball,” she said. “I look forward to practice. I know they will give me everything I can ask of them.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the car accident happened on Jan. 8.