Heart over height: Waterford's Brennan overcomes injury to take on her next challenge
After the diagnosis came, a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Mia Brennan had a conversation with UConn Avery Point women's basketball coach George Hardison, who had coached her for the last two seasons.
"We had the conversation," Hardison said this week. "'If this is the end of your career, it's a hell of a career.' She said, 'We'll see how it goes.' That didn't last very long. If that had happened, she would have been able to continue on (without basketball), but she said, 'I can't not play.'"
It wasn't the end of the story for Brennan and basketball.
A 2017 Waterford High School graduate, where she was a Class M all-state selection and a member of The Day's All-Area girls' basketball team, Brennan took part in Media Day recently as a member of the Southern Connecticut State University women's basketball team.
"We went out and had a little white platform," Brennan said of the recent photo session with her new teammates at Southern. "We had the ball. We took a smiling picture. A serious picture. We just did different things."
A 5-foot-3 point guard, Brennan originally committed to the University of Bridgeport, a Division II program, as is Southern. Bridgeport, though, reportedly balked following Brennan's injury.
And so Brennan stayed at Avery Point for an extra year, taking UConn accredited classes and serving as an unofficial assistant coach as she went through her rehab. In May of this year, Brennan announced that she would attend Southern Connecticut and play basketball.
Talk about determination.
"It's going all right," Brennan said in a telephone interview. "There's definitely a change in how things are being run because of COVID. We're basically in phases now. Last week was phase one, part one. We're in groups of six or seven. There's a certain set time for groups to go (to practice) at different times.
"It feels good. I haven't been back on the court for quite some time. I'm getting back into a rhythm. Shooting drills and conditioning. I haven't played in a set game yet. ... I'm excited. I appreciate the opportunity that they're giving me. Everything seems to be how it should be."
Hardison has no doubt that Brennan will adapt — "there's not going to be a learning curve," he said.
Brennan has already changed roles many times during her career. As a senior in high school, she led Waterford to a 20-6 record and a berth in the semifinals of the Class M state tournament.
At Avery Point, she came off the bench for the first part of her freshman year, showing flashes of star power but with Hardison preferring to have that fire coming in from the bench. She averaged 12 points and eight assists per game, as the Pointers finished third in the nation, making their first NJCAA Division III appearance in program history.
Then came yet another role for Brennan: All-American.
Hardison calls Brennan "the most talented player to come through the program — and that's saying a lot."
As a sophomore at Avery Point, Brennan, named a third team All-American by the NJCAA, averaged 31.8 points per game to lead the nation and yet, Hardison points out, still averaged eight assists per game. She broke the Pointers' all-time scoring record with 1,373 points, setting a single-season record with 986 points as a sophomore, including a single-game record with 57 points.
She set the Avery Point record for career steals (303) and ranks second all-time in assists (341), while leading the Pointers back to the national tournament. Brennan finished with 35 points, six assists and six steals in the final game of her career, as Avery Point finished seventh. That was also when Brennan tore her ACL in the game's waning moments.
Brennan did all that while carrying a 3.68 grade point average, qualifying her as a finalist for the National Alliance of Two-Year College Athletic Administrators' 2019 Female Scholar Athlete Award.
"I had a few Division III offers previously, but not playing AAU for those organizations, I didn't get as many from just playing high school," Brennan said of her original decision to attend junior college at Avery Point. "I knew George. I think it was a good fit for me and what I wanted to do. I played some good teams there. I guess just being around my family; my mom, my brother, my grandmother, my cousins, they've been there for me and always supported me."
After her injury, Brennan stayed around to help out at Avery Point.
"Just like the two years before that, she never missed a practice, she came to everything every day," Hardison said of post-ACL surgery Brennan. "She came to every road trip. She filmed games, just anything we asked her to do.
"She was and will forever be a part of our program. Her grandmother always said if we were a four-year school, there would be no reason for her to look anywhere else. ... As a human being, she never gave up. She never took it from anybody. I can't say enough about Mia, period. There's no end to the superlatives."
One of the first memorable moments on the Brennan highlight reel came as a junior at Waterford. It was the 2016 Eastern Connecticut Conference girls' basketball championship game, three seconds remaining.
Brennan saved a ball from going out of bounds, her back to the basket, spinning and hitting a 3-point field goal to send the game against Norwich Free Academy to overtime tied 48-48. (NFA won 57-52 in overtime).
Brennan knew she had to bounce back from her injury.
"Since I was five years old, it's been my escape place," she said. "(My brother JJ and I), we always battle in the backyard, the Jordan courts, the community center. I just love the aspect of the game, how it's played ... just working hard and always wanting it more than your opponent.
"I am 5-3, but heart over height."
Brennan did play in the Night Flight Basketball League this summer in Norwich, teaming with several former local high school all-stars to win the women's division championship.
"We had a squad. That was a ton of fun," Brennan said. "We've all played with each other before, so the chemistry was already there."
Now, Brennan takes on her next role.
At Southern, she's majoring in sociology with a concentration in criminology. She is a senior in the classroom, but a red-shirt junior athletically, which will allow her to work on her master's degree next year. She is joined at Southern by former Avery Point teammate Meg Bianchi and by fellow Waterford grad Marilyn Childs. The Owls are coached by Kate Lynch.
"A lot of little things," Brennan said of what progress she still needs to make, "getting stronger, working on those muscles to get it back. I was determined. I did everything to be back out there as soon as I could.
"... I'm not satisfied. I want more for myself."
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