by Rob Moseley
Two hours before tipoff in Matthew Knight Arena on Monday, Laura Stanulis was across the Willamette River at the Casanova Center.
Oregon's senior point guard, who suffered a major knee injury five games into last season, was being evaluated by a doctor. She'd undergone a physical examination last week, and strength and flexibility tests. She was cautiously optimistic she'd be cleared to play in the Ducks' exhibition game Monday.
Still, when the news was confirmed, it took her breath away.
"It was like Christmas morning," Stanulis said a few hours later, her left knee having just been examined again following 11 minutes of playing time in the Ducks' 116-51 win over Oregon Tech.
"I've just been waiting forever. To finally hear it, it was like, it's all been worth it. It's been a long road, and I finally made it."
There was a lot to like in Oregon's win over the Owls, which was its last exhibition game before opening the regular season on Saturday night against CSU Bakersfield.
Newcomers Chrishae Rowe, Drea Toler and Katelyn Loper again provided offensive punch the Ducks so sorely lacked a year ago, with a combined 77 points. Oregon hounded OIT into 18.2 percent shooting and 32 turnovers, and sophomore Jillian Alleyne had a double-double.
But not to be overlooked was the return of Stanulis, who will play important minutes for the Ducks this season. And beyond that, her return meant so much to the team on a personal level.
"As you could see out there, we were all excited and happy for her," senior Ariel Thomas said, noting Stanulis' path from walk-on to scholarship player to starter, only to have her upward trajectory derailed by the knee injury.
"We're proud of her."
Her 11 minutes of production were typical of Stanulis' play prior to the injury. Never a big point producer, she didn't score, missing two three-point attempts. But she had three steals and five assists; Stanulis first entered about five minutes in, and she assisted on three straight baskets moments later.
"It was just like riding a bike, getting back into the swing of things," she said. "After a couple minutes, it was back to normal."
For the players who endured last season's four-win misery of a season, when the roster was down to seven healthy bodies, very little of Monday's high-scoring, up-tempo blowout must have felt "normal." The Ducks have the depth to press with a frequency they couldn't afford in 2012-13, and have scorers in Rowe, Loper and Toler who can finish in head coach Paul Westhead's storied "System."
Now add to the mix Stanulis, who will be "an immense help to us," Westhead said.
"Laura is clever, and deceptively fast," Westhead said. "She knows 'The System' better than anyone."
Westhead predicted Stanulis' "immense help" Monday just before acknowledging that Thomas "ounce-for-ounce or minute-for-minute might be my best player." When the Ducks take the court Saturday night against Bakersfield, it will be Thomas starting at point guard.
But Thomas can shift out to small forward at times, making room for Stanulis. More likely, though, the two will trade off short bursts — four, five minutes each — before giving way to the other.
"That's a huge advantage, to have multiple players at each position," Stanulis said. "Especially the 'one,' because that's where it starts in 'The System.'"
Added Westhead: "As good as I'm saying Ariel is, she can't do that for 40 minutes. At best, in my system, you need two(point guards) you can flip-flop. Who starts is a coin flip. Because that other player — Laura in this case — she's going to play as many minutes as Ariel, and have as much impact on the team."
Last season, while Thomas averaged 28.8 minutes per game; it sometimes felt like she never left the court, given all the injuries to teammates. She welcomes the chance to share minutes with Stanulis going forward.
"I don't want to use it as an excuse, but it was a lot more fatiguing," Thomas said. "Personally, my conditioning wasn't there. That's just a fact. It wasn't there to play 'The System.'
"This year, one, we're all in better condition, and two, we're healthy. We can just keep going and going."
A Thomas-Stanulis rotation doesn't even account for Toler, nicknamed "Speedy," who is "going to eventually be a crowd pleaser; I can see it coming," Westhead said. And the Ducks also soon hope to welcome back Lexi Petersen, who like Stanulis used a medical hardship due to an early knee injury last season. Petersen, Westhead insists, would have been Oregon's best player had she stayed healthy last season.
"She's the real deal," Westhead said of Petersen.
But Monday was all about Stanulis. Her long road back was completed, much to the joy of the Ducks.
"I haven't been running the stuff as much as I'd like to (in practice), so in my head I was like, 'just get it and go,''" Stanulis said. "Just run 'The System.'"
It sounds like a simple thing. But to the Ducks and their senior point guard, seeing her able to do that again meant so much.