As one of the team’s leading scorers, Trevor Spindler was off to a fast start in Esko’s first four basketball games of the high school season.
“Everything was feeling great,” the senior guard said. “I was thinking we could make a run down at state. I was ready for a good season.”
In a split-second, Spindler’s life changed Dec. 14.
Riding in a car driven by Kristy DeMuth, a member of the Esko girls basketball team, Spindler bore the full impact when the car was T-boned by another vehicle on Highway 61.
“I didn’t feel (pain) until I was at the hospital,” Spindler recalled. “I crawled out of the car actually. I was scared, I couldn’t really feel anything.”
Spindler was transported to Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth where x-rays revealed a broken pelvis and a lacerated bladder, meaning Spindler’s season likely was over.
“That’s all I could think about that whole night,” he said. “Once x-rays came back, they told me it was broken in two spots and that I was probably done.
“It was one of the worst things I’ve been told. I was pretty emotional about it.”
Spindler and his Esko classmates already have gone through a lot this school year. Sophomore quarterback Jackson Pfister died from a congenital heart condition after collapsing on the field during a game.
“My heart sank when I found out because we didn’t know how bad it was, just that he was going to the hospital,” senior guard James LeGarde said. “It was a super scary moment because just recently we had something like that happen, and we were like ‘This can’t be happening again.’ We’re glad everyone is all right.”
Senior guard Payton Wefel added: “I was in shock at first. I thought it wasn’t true and was imagining it. I was just concerned about his safety and not even thinking about basketball.”
Thankfully, DeMuth and another passenger were uninjured but Spindler spent 11 days in the hospital before being released Christmas Eve.
“Eleven days of pretty much looking at a ceiling,” he said. “I was pretty bored.”
“He’s been in good spirits considering everything that’s happened to him,” Esko coach Derek Anderson said. “It sounds like there’s light at the end of the tunnel that he will be able to walk normally down the road.”
Only days after being released, Spindler surprised his teammates by watching the final of the Esko Coaches Classic in person. He traveled to a big win at Willow River and was planning on watching Esko’s game at Grand Rapids on Tuesday night, where the Eskomos lost 66-42 to the Thunderhawks and high-scoring John Sutherland. Sutherland, who scored 35 points Tuesday, is a Minnesota Duluth signee who was Spindler’s teammate last summer on an Amateur Athletic Union team.
“He’s a trooper,” LeGarde said. “A lot of guys would be lying in bed for a long time after something like that happened, but not much later he was back supporting us again. That shows what kind of teammate he is. We wanted to play so much harder in front of him.”
Anderson’s primary objective, after learning that Spindler would be OK, was how to replace him on the court.
“He was our everything. He was our best offensive player, our best defensive player,” Anderson said. “He had a really high motor. There weren't very many moments that he was out of a game. My message to the team was, ‘You’re not going to replace a kid like that so it has to be a complete team effort to step up a little bit extra than what we originally asked from you.’ ”
To that effort, LeGarde has increased his scoring load; Preston Lowe and Eli Blue have stepped into increased roles; and Wefel has become more of a playmaker in addition to his 3-point shooting.
Defending Section 7AA champion Esko (8-2) entered Tuesday’s game on a six-game win streak, including a one-point win at Superior and a two-point win at Polar League rival Moose Lake-Willow River in a game the Eskomos trailed by 13 points late and were still down by two points with less than two seconds remaining.
“Our goals haven’t changed with Trevor being out,” Wefel said. “It’s definitely a huge loss, but everyone has stepped up and knew what they had to do to win. Everyone is doing their part.
“This whole thing has brought us a lot closer and made us lean on each other to get back to doing what we need to do to win.”
Indirectly, LeGarde said, Spindler’s injury is making the team more well-rounded.
“A lot of guys who you might not expect have been stepping up into bigger roles,” LeGarde said. ���Without Trevor, those are huge shoes to fill and nobody can do that by themselves. We all have had to chip in and work extra hard.”
Now Spindler is the team’s biggest cheerleader. He’s gone from garnering recruiting interest from schools such as St. Scholastica, Wisconsin-Superior and Augsburg College to wondering whether he will play again.
Anderson says he hasn’t broached the subject of returning with Spindler, but the teenager is keeping his dreams alive.
“I want to be back for playoffs,” he said. “I’m hoping for a fast recovery, a best-case scenario, but I’m shooting for it because it would mean everything to be back on the court.”
And if he doesn’t make it back in time?
“I just want them to go out there and win,” he said. “I want to see them back at state, that would mean everything for me.”