Wauseon alumnus Austin Rotroff’s college basketball career at Duquesne did not get off to the ideal start when he suffered the worst injury of his life, an ACL tear, halfway through his freshmen season in January of 2019. But he now looks to put that behind him heading into his junior season in 2020-21.
When it first happened during a game with Saint Louis University on Jan. 23, 2019, Rotroff felt the pop in his knee but was unaware as to the severity of the injury until he was checked out by the team trainer and doctors. Once the adrenaline wore off, the pain got more severe, he said.
“I was pretty devastated for the immediate time being after I figured out what it (the injury) was,” explained Rotroff. “But then I was listening to what the doctors and my trainer was saying. And they said that, with all going according to plan, I could be back for the whole year next year and I could be back by November. So that’s kind of what I set my goal on.”
That optimism ended up serving him well.
Surgery was conducted on Feb. 13, 2019, and he would later be cleared to play eight and a half months after the operation — right around Halloween and the start of this past season.
Rotroff recalls the rehab process being “hard.” He was on crutches for the first six weeks and had to learn how to walk properly.
However, it did get better three months post-surgery when his leg was well enough he could run on it.
Initially, the timetable for recovery was 9-12 months, so Rotroff beat that mark by two weeks.
“We really made a push like the last months to kind of get me ready for the first game; and I got cleared, I think three days before our first game,” said the 6’10” Duquesne forward. “They sent me over to this therapy at the UPMC Health Center (in Pittsburgh) a lot to just try to get the strength up and did a lot of basketball stuff. So I was kind of working overtime those last couple weeks just trying to get myself ready and it ended up working pretty well.”
Rotroff saw action in 21 games this past season, beginning with the season-opener versus Princeton where he made his return from injury.
Then, like every team in the country, the Dukes saw their season come to an end in March at the hands of the coronavirus. News of the stoppage came down the same day Duquesne was to compete in the opening round of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament in Brooklyn, NY.
They were scheduled to play that night at approximately 8:30 p.m., but learned they would not after returning to their hotel following an afternoon shoot-around session.
The news was tough to take, as Rotroff says the Dukes felt they had a chance to go 4-0, win the conference championship and subsequently punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
To do that, they would have likely had to get by the Dayton Flyers, a group that finished the season ranked third in the country in the final Associated Press poll. However, Rotroff was confident his team could pull the upset, having played the Flyers tough in both regular season contests.
“Obviously Dayton was kind of the team to beat in the conference. And we played them close both times — we lost by four at home and I think we lost by 10 at their place,” said Rotroff. “We were feeling pretty good going into the tournament. We had a bunch of good days of practice before, and I think we were kind of ready to play to our full potential which we hadn’t quite done so far leading up to that.”
He says the returning players will use this season’s abrupt end as motivation for the coming year.
Rotroff has both team and individual goals on his mind while preparing for next season.
“Definitely working towards a conference championship,” he said of his team’s goals for the 2020-21 campaign. “I felt like we’ve made really big improvements from before I came, to my freshman year, to my sophomore year. We’ve seen a lot of improvement, and I think next year is gonna be big for us.”
Personally, with much of last season being spent trying to get reacclimated to the game, he felt he lagged behind the rest of the team for much of it. That should change with an entire offseason ahead of him to develop his game.
And perhaps more important, a healthy offseason.
Rotroff hopes this will aid him in earning a bigger role on the team going forward.
“Coach (Keith) Dambrot loves to work through his bigs,” he said. “We always have a lot of bigs that can play. We got our two starting bigs next year returning; we’re bringing a kid in. So we always got really good depth and it’s really competitive at the four and five spots. We’re all gonna compete, but I think I can definitely earn a pretty good role on the team — next year and even my senior year.”
He was by far the centerpiece on his high school team. In his three years playing at Wauseon, the Indians went a combined 72-7.
Rotroff averaged nearly 15 points (14.8) and 8.1 rebounds as a senior in 2017-18, a year which saw them go 25-1 and finish the regular season ranked No. 1 in the state in Division II.
“Austin was the ultimate low-maintenance player,” said his high school coach, Chad Burt. “Obviously, what he did on the court was immeasurable. He controlled both ends of the floor. In my opinion, he is the best high school player that this area has seen in the last 20 years or more. However, what he did off of the court was just as important to the success of our program both in the short term and in the long run. He was a quiet leader both on and off of the court and had tremendous work ethic. He did a great job of leading by example in practice and in the locker room. His conduct at school, in the classroom, and off of the court was top notch. He made good decisions and was a perfect example of a what a student-athlete should be at the high school level.
“From my standpoint, his physical development and mental toughness from his freshman to his senior year is unmatched compared to any player that I have ever coached,” he added.
The Wauseon program experienced a wealth of success while Rotroff was there.
As a junior, he helped lead the Indians to the state title game where they fell to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.
More memorable for Rotroff, however, were the two games prior: an overtime win over Elida in the regional final, then a victory against Eastmoor Academy in the state semifinal.
Burt was also a fan of the state semifinal, a game he says Rotroff helped the Indians take control of.
“If I had to say a specific memory, I would say that would have to be in the state semifinals against Columbus Eastmoor Academy when he had nine blocked shots and totally controlled the defensive end of the floor,” said Burt, reflecting back to his time coaching Austin. “Because of his defensive effort and others, we were able to compete for a state championship which is a memory that won’t soon be forgotten.”
Rotroff had the time of his life as a member of the Wauseon program. He forged lifelong friendships that he still holds dear.
“Honestly just all the friends that I’ve made. I still keep in contact with almost all of them,” he said on what he will remember most about his high school playing days. “It’s just a big family. I really just remember, mostly, hanging out with the guys. Team bonding, bus rides, stuff like that. Memories you’ll never forget, and friends that you’ll have forever, really.”
His prep career did not end the way he would have liked it to, though. As a senior, Rotroff and the Indians were defeated in the regional semifinal by Lexington.
It’s a game he wishes he could have back, one that still bothers him to this day.
“I really think we could of made a good run at the state championship,” Rotroff said. “I was at the state championships that year watching the teams that we potentially would have played. And I definitely felt like we could have made a good run at it. But, you know, it is what it is and I wouldn’t have it any other way I guess.”
One thing different for Rotroff compared to his former teammates, is he still has more games left. So, for now he can focus on the future and at making new memories on the hardwood.