When Chattahoochee High’s Erika Ford was diagnosed with a possible season-ending leg injury, her coach tried to remain upbeat about it.
“Erika went from what I considered the best basketball player in Georgia to the best cheerleader in Georgia,” Chattahoochee’s Eric Herrick said, referring to Ford’s support of her teammates from the bench.
The cheerleader has transformed back to a player, just in time for the state playoffs.
Ford, who signed with Georgia, will start when Chattahoochee plays host to Loganville at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
“I think our goal going into the year was the state championship,” Herrick said. “With Erika back on board, that’s clearly in our sights and our goal.”
Tuesday’s game will be only the fifth of season for the All-State guard. She was cleared for limited play in the final two games of the region tournament, and had 20 points and 8 rebounds in the 70-44 first-round playoff win over Chapel Hill on Saturday.
“It feels amazing to be out there again with my teammates,” Ford said. “I didn’t really know if I was ever going to get to play another high school game. This is really great.”
Ford’s injury woes date back to last summer, when she suffered a stress fracture in her left shin area. She doesn’t remember the exact moment or game, just that she began to feel a little pain. Ford is known for her toughness and simply played through it.
The 5-foot-9 Ford was unable to join her Chattahoochee basketball teammates for the first five weeks of practices and games while recovering from a back injury suffered playing for the school’s volleyball team.
With the lengthy time of rest, Ford figured her shin splints would be gone when she finally appeared for Chattahoochee in a Dec. 3 game against Johns Creek. She scored 18 points but had a noticeable limp. Ford underwent X-rays the next day and diagnosed with a stress fracture.
The doctors said Ford would be out for at least two months, maybe more. There was the possibility of surgery if she didn’t follow strict rehabilitation orders.
“With Erika being so competitive, she was devastated,” Herrick said. ” She was in tears. She felt like she was letting her teammates and me down.”
It was a big blow for Chattahoochee, which was patiently awaiting the return of its star player. “We were shocked and disappointed; we had no idea about the extent of the injury,” point guard Kayla Upchurch said.
Even the coach needed a few days to process the news before addressing the team. Herrick told the seniors that he felt there was still enough talent to win without Ford, and to challenge the rest of the girls to prove it.
Wearing a cast ankle boot for the next 10 weeks, Ford served as one of the team’s managers. She helped organize and oversee team drills at practices. Before games, she filled water bottles and gave them out during timeouts.
“Since I couldn’t play, I cheered them on as much as I could,” Ford said. “I got them everything they needed for the game. I stayed positive about everything and they were winning, so I was happy.
Chattahoochee (26-3) had other players fill the large void, with Upchurch and Alexis Alexander both averaging 18 points per game. They won 22 games in a row, and no one was happier than Ford.
“It was awesome,” Ford said. “After how I played that one game against Johns Creek, I thought they were a better team without me. People didn’t realize how many good players we had on our team, and they showed them.”
About 10 days ago, Ford was finally given medical clearance and made an instant impact. She was limited to two minutes per quarter in her first two outings and scored a total of 23 points, breaking Chattahoochee’s all-time career scoring record.
“The season is long; with the holidays and making up the snow games, it starts to wear on you,” Herrick said. “All of our players are extremely excited to have Erika back. She has brought a new energy to our team. It’s hard to find that late spark late in the season.”
The return of Ford — even at “75-percent healthy” — has dramatically increased Chattahoochee’s championship hopes.
“We’ve been playing so well that we thought if we had to do it without Erika, we could,” Upchurch said. “But now that we have Erika back, it gives us more confidence than ever.”