ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y.-One year ago, Chelsea Bowker was not sure if she still wanted to play basketball. But now, with her career entering its final weeks, Bowker's perseverance is being rewarded.
The St. Bonaventure senior forward-and 2009 Crestview graduate-has saved her best season for last. After sitting out last season with a serious ankle injury, Bowker has started all but two games for the Bonnies, averaging a career-high 10.1 points per game while also draining the most three-pointers on the team. To top it off, Bowker is just 31 points away from becoming the 19th player in school history to score 1,000 career points.
"To score 1,000 points as a Division I athlete would be surreal," Bowker said. "There is no way I ever envisioned that happening. It would be a great way to cap off my career."
St. Bonaventure (22-9) opens the Atlantic 10 conference tournament as a No. 2 seed today against No. 7 seed La Salle at Richmond, Virginia. To secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the Bonnies would likely have to win the conference tournament, however, even if they should be upset, a berth in the Women's NIT tournament is virtually guaranteed giving Bowker a minimum of two games to reach the milestone.
"I'm not thinking too much about how many games we have left," Bowker said. "I'm just having fun playing basketball with this team and we just have the mindset of going out to win every game."
All of it was close to not being a reality.
Bowker ruined her ankle before last season while doing an individual drill. She required reconstructive surgery and was in a cast for six months. Additional surgery was later required to repair lingering ligament damage. Though she was granted an extra year of eligibility, Bowker thought often about quitting.
"I had a lot of long talks with my family, teammates and coaches," Bowker said. "Rehab was hard, and I really wasn't sure if I wanted to come back."
But Bowker also knew that this season would be the last chance she had to play basketball, and the more she thought, the more she wanted to take advantage of it.
"That's what kept me going more than anything else," Bowker said. "I wanted one more chance to be part of a team. The coaching staff and players really helped with my rehab and getting me back into shape."
The second surgery was supposed to sideline Bowker for three months, but she hurried back in three weeks to maximize her playing time this season. Though her numbers would indicate otherwise, Bowker's balky ankle has taken its toll. She is frequently in pain and is excused from practice two days a week. On the court, much of her mobility has been robbed, forcing Bowker to compensate with her experience and knowledge of the team's system.
"The injury has forced me to become a smarter player," Bowker said. "I'm not nearly as fast so I've had to do a better job of reading angles and knowing where to be on the floor."
After reaching the NCAA Sweet 16 during her junior year, St. Bonaventure stumbled to 10 wins last season with Bowker sidelined. This season, the Bonnies have mirrored Bowker's comeback with a second-place finish in the Atlantic 10.
"I would rank this year right up there with the NCAA season," Bowker said. "The biggest thing is that this year we are more together as a team. Last season it was mainly a bunch of girls doing their own thing, but this year we hang out a lot more and enjoy being together. It shows with how we play."
By her own admission, Bowker was not much of a three-point shooter at Crestview, but worked hard at developing her outside shot after the coaching staff said her primary role would be to stretch the floor. She is currently fourth in school history in three-pointers made. When her career concludes this month, Bowker will concentrate on her new job as a full-time substitute teacher at a middle school near St. Bonaventure for disabled children. She is also closing in on her masters degree in education.
"It wasn't an easy adjustment for me coming here and playing at this level," Bowker said. "I was really homesick at first and did a lot of things wrong, but once I got into the flow of things it was a lot better. After the injury, I've really enjoyed this season. I learned not to take any game for granted."