Aches and pains come with playing high school basketball, but there are times when Elijah Sanders still feels a twinge and soreness in his lower back. A fracture discovered more than a year ago is still there.
Sanders, Timberline High School’s senior starting center, played in only five games as a junior before the diagnosis of a fracture in his fifth lumbar bone. Within two weeks, he went from logging heavy minutes on the court to being practically immobilized over the winter break.
“Christmas Day,” Sanders said, “I couldn’t even move. I stayed in one spot the entire day.”
As the Blazers prepare for their regular-season finale Wednesday against rival North Thurston, the 6-foot-5 Sanders is a key reason why Timberline is playoff bound and looking for its first berth in the state tournament since 2004.
“He’s answered all the bells,” first-year Timberline coach Allen Thomas said.
Sanders can’t recall exactly how the back injury happened, just that it persistently became worse.
His final game as a junior was a 69-55 loss to North Thurston in mid-December 2011. He scored four points.
He spent the rest of the season attending practices and games as part of the support system on the bench. Devastated, his top priority was working his way back for his senior season, and that meant rest, rehabilitation and extensive physical therapy sessions. The plan was to wear a back brace for five months, but that was reduced to six weeks. He was cleared to play basketball again in mid-August.
Being cleared to play and being healed are different things. Because the fracture is still there, he manages the pain with aspirin. He takes time to make sure he warms up his back before games.
“It’s a matter of getting it manageable,” Sanders said. “I will always have a fracture. It’s sore some days.”
This season has been Sanders’ late-arriving coming-out party.
A former wing turned post, Sanders is his team’s second-leading scorer behind junior Donaven Dorsey.
Sanders, who moved to Lacey from Pullman in middle school, is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds, and had a season-high 20 points in a 69-62 win over Wilson.
He also scored 14 points in a big 63-50 win over Mount Tahoma on Friday to secure the 3A Narrows League’s No. 3 playoff seed into next week’s West Central/Southwest bi-district boys basketball tournament.
Thomas said Sanders’ defensive presence makes opposing players alter their shots.
“When he brings his game, we’re a different team,” Thomas said.
It took time for him to return to a basketball rhythm after Thomas moved him to the low block as the Blazers’ biggest front-line player. But it’s been a smooth transition.
“I kind of like playing inside more under the basket,” Sanders said. “It’s a lot more physical.”
Despite missing much of his junior season, Sanders has attracted attention from small-college teams. Thomas thinks Sanders is one of the top big men to go through the Narrows League the past 10 years.
“He’s pretty good when he plays his game,” Thomas said. “He’s a triple-double waiting to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens once or twice before the season is over.”Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org theolympian.com/southsoundsports @MegWochnick