Knock on wood

Photo by Corey Lissy, Valpo Athletics Valparaiso University's Ryan Fazekas (Marquette Catholic) was second on the team in scoring last season, but missed 13 games due to ankle and thumb injuries. 

VALPARAISO — The bulk of Ryan Fazekas' college career has read more like a medical journal than a basketball publication.

Mononucleosis and a subsequent relapse hampered his freshman season at Providence. As a sophomore, he sustained a tear in his left shoulder that didn't cost him court time, but affected his play. The Marquette Catholic product from Chesterton had surgery during his transfer year at Valparaiso. Last season, he had a productive campaign with the Crusaders sidetracked twice, once by a severely sprained ankle and the next time by a broken thumb.

"At this point, I'm like there's got to be something waiting for me," Fazekas said this week at the Crusaders' Schrage Basketball Wing. "I can't keep running into issues."

It only stands to reason the 6-foot-7 forward would have an injury-free senior season. The hoops gods can't be that mean, can they?

"I'm just not lucky," Fazekas said. "Stepping on a foot, I rolled my ankle. Driving to the hole, I get slapped on the hand. Even the shoulder one, that happened in practice. That could have been prevented. I'm just doing everything I can to strengthen and prevent injuries."

When Fazekas has been able to stay on the court, he's usually fared well. Despite the illness and its effects on his conditioning, he averaged 5.1 points per game as a freshman at Providence, playing alongside future NBA-ers Kris Dunn and Reggie Bullock. The shoulder injury cut into his minutes as a sophomore and the rehab from the resulting operation idled him into his transfer year, though Crusaders coach Matt Lottich liked what he had seen.

"We have a long history with Ryan," Lottich said. "We'd been following him since coming out of high school and just out of interest when he was at Providence. Getting him back, he was really hitting his stride when he got hurt. He was shooting the ball great, toughness, rebounding. It was just another setback. Right now, our No. 1 priority is just to get him healthy. He's had a history. We know when he's on the court, he's going to be good. We have to do our part as coaches to make sure we're smart in how we're attacking every single day. We want to keep him healthy."

Fazekas started all 20 of his games as a junior, averaging 11.8 points per game (second on the team) while leading the Crusaders in 3-point shooting (43.2 percent) and free throw accuracy (80.6). Valpo jumped out to a 4-0 start in the Missouri Valley Conference, but the ankle and thumb maladies cost 'Zeke' 13 games between early January and the end of the season, and an up-and-down year for VU ended at 15-18.

"Definitely motivated," Fazekas said. "For me, I'm ready to lace 'em up and start playing again, but for the team, I think the summer, the first few months of school, are a real opportunity for us. We have pretty much a brand new team, a lot of new guys coming in. We have to take the time now to get them accustomed to what we're doing so when we start real practices the first month, we can get through the transition and start playing. The offseason is a big part of that development."

Fazekas knows the ankle, which was actually close to being dislocated, will never be 100 percent. He considered surgery, but after consulting with doctors, opted to go the rehab route.

"I'll get it done once my career's over," he said. "It was too much of a risk (now) of rolling the ankle and damaging the repairs and not being able to play with it. Tendon replacement would be better for someone who's just walking around. There's not much more damage I can do to it. Two of the three ligaments are gone. There's not much attached in there anymore. It's better to just brace it up -- the brace prevents the worst possible sprain -- strengthen it and all the muscles around it every day. I'm not losing any strength or agility. Once it gets warm, the discomfort goes away."

Back up to speed in conditioning, Fazekas now aims to add 10 pounds to his slender 200-pound frame by the season and maintain the weight, a challenge he's dealt with throughout his life.

"I eat as much as anyone, but I can't gain anything," he said. "Coming back from mono, I lost 20 pounds. I was 185 at my lowest. My sophomore year before the shoulder injury, I was 210. That's the most. I can lift more. I'm stronger. I'm just not building on anything. I feel good again. The first month back, my lungs were burning, but now I barely break a sweat. I've come along quick. I'm in good shape. I can bang with guys. I'm moving good."

Lottich lauds Fazekas' diligence in the off-season, where, as the saying goes, champions are made.

"Ryan's very self-motivated," Lottich said. "He's hitting the weight room hard, he's hitting the training room hard, all while participating, being a fantastic leader and player. We're expecting good things from him. We hope he can hit that stride again."

Long known for his shooting prowess, Fazekas has worked to expand the rest of his game in an effort to maximize his offensive efficiency.

"Of course, I'm going to shoot the 3, that's what I want to do," he said. "But now I'm adding counters for when guys have long closeouts. I'm putting that one-dribble, two dribble pull-up in, 10-, 15-foot jump shot, nothing flashy. I've liked the mid-range since high school. I'm working in the post again. I get smaller guards on me, I can be more effective, more face-up stuff, shoot over them."

On pace to graduate with a business management degree and possibly even knock out a minor, Fazekas hopes a big senior season can bolster his chances of playing professionally, whether here or overseas.

"Definitely the goal is always the NBA. That's what I work for every day, but I'm all right with overseas," he said. "You make good money over there, too. It brings good opportunities, too."

Before then, Fazekas is anxious for what's in store following a turbulent off-season that saw significant turnover in the Crusaders roster. Having been through exactly zero seasons without some sort of malady, he's not looking to make up for lost time. He's just anxious to enjoy all that it brings, from the summer grind to, he hopes, the March Madness.

"My college career is coming to an end. I want to make the best of what's left of it," he said. "There's that pressure in the back (of my mind), but I try to keep it away. I think that's good sometimes. It makes you respond. I just can't let it overcome me, let it push me in ways that aren't healthy. The biggest thing is just having fun with it."

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