Jade Desroches doesn’t remember much from the night of her back surgery, just a lot of visitors, a lot of gifts and a lot of pain.
But all those visitors and Desroches’ mother, Lorraine McAllister, remember something else.
“I know everyone that came and saw her that week was thinking that she would never play sports again,” McAllister recalled.
She was only a sophomore in high school at the time.
Flash forward five years, almost to the day: It’s 2014 and Desroches, now a junior at Castleton College, scores a career high of 32 points and lifts the Spartan women’s basketball team to its first NCAA Tournament win in program history.
In high school, Desroches was a three-sport athlete, but a tomboy and destined athlete long before that.
“I could not get her to wear girly colors until at least eighth grade,” McAllister said.
In junior high, Desroches came down with mono and was supposed to be resting, but her mother would catch her outside kicking a soccer ball against the barn wall or sneaking out to shoot hoops in the driveway, even in the snow.
Desroches was 4-years-old when she first started playing basketball.
With four brothers, it was hard to avoid, Desroches said, wearing a grey Spartan basketball sweatshirt with her hair in a tight ponytail. She’s sitting in the living room of the tiny one-bedroom apartment she now shares with her boyfriend.
She played every sport Enosburg High School had to offer, but basketball was the only one she played year round.
The bad news
The pain started in eighth grade.
Desroches started sitting out practices and missing soccer camp. As the pain in her back progressed, she couldn’t even stand for more than 20 minutes.
“It was really…really…bad,” she said looking down at the floor.
She started seeing doctors, and ended up at The Spine Institute in Burlington, where she finally got her diagnosis.
It’s called Spondylolysthesis, and according to medicienet.com it’s “a condition of the spine whereby one of the vertebra slips forward or backward compared to the next vertebra.”
Her vertebra had slipped 80 percent out of place.
“So it was falling into my pelvis more or less,” Desroches said in an offhand manner.
She would need surgery – soon. She makes light of it today, but the mood was much more grim at the time.
Eight hours, seven inches, six screws
“Jade and I both cried the day we found out she needed surgery,” McAllister said. “Mostly I cried when she wasn’t home because I was scared, but I didn’t want her to know … I tried to be strong for her.”
The doctors told them there were no guarantees when working on an area as sensitive and crucial as the spine. A lot could go wrong.
So on March 26 of her sophomore year, just weeks after receiving her diagnosis, Desroches went under the knife at Fletcher Allen Hospital.
She emerged after eight hours with a seven-inch scar and six screws holding her spine together.
The surgery went well, but the pain was worse than ever.
It was so bad that after a visit from her cousin’s husband, a soccer player and owner of the Vermont Voltage, he told his wife later that night that Desroches would never play again.
Everyone was thinking it, but no one said it out loud, said McAllister, but they didn’t know how positive and determined Desroches would be.
And so, her fight began.
Five days later, Desroches came home from the hospital. The next day she took a two-mile walk using the kind of walker you see 85-year-olds using, complete with the “tennis balls on the bottom.”
It was clear that Desroches would not be going down without a fight.
“She was supposed to be out of school for six to eight weeks – she went back to school after two-and-a-half weeks,” McAllister said. “We knew from there she was going to come back 100 percent.”
“I actually got cleared a month early, which is really unheard of, but I begged my surgeon,” she said with a laugh, adding that she was quickly surprising people with her level of play.
The unlikely milestone
A year later, in her senior year, Desroches scored her 1,000th point in basketball.
“It was basically the best night of my life,” she said smiling.
“Everyone wants to score their 1000th point at home, obviously. It was at Richford, which is our rival, and I live halfway between Enosburg and Richford so it’s was really close to home.”
The stands were more packed than she had ever seem them, filled with family, family friends, friends, friends of friends, and strangers.
“I probably had over 30 family members there…Every time I touched the ball it was so loud. It was crazy,” she said.
Desroches needed 16 points to reach 1,000. She ended the game with 17 and ended her high school career with 1,310.
That’s when the recruitment letters started pouring in. Plattsburg, Norwich, Elmira, and a bunch more Desroches doesn’t even remember.
“If they were out of state I just kind of threw them away. I didn’t want to go far,” she said. “I was excited when Castleton recruited me because it was in-state and I knew they had a good program for being in Vermont.”
Coach Tim Barrett didn’t know about her surgery when he first recruited her, but once she got to Castleton she had to tell him. Barrett asked if this was something she thought would affect her game.
“Obviously I said no,” Desroches said laughing.
A not-so-fresh start
So there she was. She had recovered from her surgery, scored her 1,000 points, gotten recruited to the perfect college and was on track for a great college basketball career. But early in December of freshman year at a home game against Husson, Desroches drove to the basket, went up for a layup and came down with a torn ACL.
When it first happened, she didn’t quite realize how bad it was. In fact, she thought she would be back on the court the next day.
“I was hoping it wasn’t torn, but when the doctor said it was I just went into a depression,” she said. “Because I knew I was going to have to do so much just to be able to play again. I’d have to go to every single practice and just watch. I felt like I hadn’t gotten a chance to prove myself as a basketball player yet. It was the very first time I drove to the basket, and then I got hurt.
McAllister described the injury in one word — “heartbreaking.”
Her brother, Dallas Desroches, plays soccer at Castleton, so he has been a witness to her entire journey, the highs and the lows, high school through college.
“As an athlete, I know there’s nothing worse than an injury,” Dallas said. “Knowing that this is what Jade had to go through twice for extensive amounts of time … I felt so bad for her.”
It took months and months of rest and rehab, and the next time Jade Desroches played basketball again was the first day of the following season.
“Again, with Jade’s determination, she came back strong,” McAllister said proudly.
“I just remember in practice, Coach said he was surprised how well I came back,” Desroches said. “I wasn’t afraid like a lot of people are. I felt like there was nothing stopping me anymore,” She said. She paused and then leaned over to knock on her wooden coffee table.
Dallas marveled at Jade’s strength saying, “Most injuries like these can cripple an athlete for the rest of their career, but not Jade.”
There was one person, teammate Meghan O’Sullivan, who wasn’t surprised by Jade’s powerful return.
They began their freshman year together and quickly became great friends.
O’Sullivan watched Jade go down when she tore her ACL.
“From the second she hit the floor, I knew it wasn’t good. My stomach sank and I wanted to run out there and carry her off the court,” O’Sullivan said.
But the following fall when Jade returned, it came as no surprise to O’Sullivan that she was at the top of her game.
“She has overcome so much adversity…and this was just a speed bump.”
In her sophomore year, she was named NAC player of the week in December. She led the team in three-point field goals with 52, and was second on the team in steals with 63.
The next year she was named first-team all conference, NAC player of the week twice and led the team in three-point field goals again, with 71 this time. She was first in steals and second in overall scoring.
All this from a girl whose athletic career was supposed to be over before she even turned 16.
McAllister said she’s so proud of her daughter, now a senior, and even though she’s a nervous wreck watching her games, she won’t miss one.
O’Sullivan put it plainly, but powerfully.
“Jade loves basketball,” she said. “As a team, we all work hard, but she always brings an extra burst of energy when we need it most.”
The point guard and power forward duo have been through it all together in the past three years, but they swear they’re not done yet. Even with a revamped team after losing six players to graduation, O’Sullivan said Desroches has the ability to elevate the team.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a teammate who hates losing more than Jade." O'Sullivan said.