Maher Strengthened by Journey Back to Basketball at Jefferson (Courtesy of The Reporter's Andrew Robinson)

Maher Strengthened by Journey Back to Basketball at Jefferson (Courtesy of The Reporter's Andrew Robinson)

The following story is courtesy of The Reporter's Andrew Robinson. You can read the full article HERE.

UPPER MORELAND, Pa. – Everything happens for a reason.

It's a mantra that Erin Maher used a lot when talking about the path her athletic career has taken since she graduated from North Penn in 2014. A two-sport standout in basketball and softball, Maher seemed on track to carry that to the next level when she signed at then-Philadelphia University, now Jefferson.

Two major injuries later, things haven't gone as planned but the challenges faced on the path back only strengthened the Lansdale resident. She knows it's not all going to come back, but Maher feels as good as she has in a few years on the court playing with her Rams teammates as part of the Philadelphia/Suburban Women's Summer Basketball League.

"It was really tough, both academically and athletically, I mean two injuries and two redshirts, it's not what I thought I'd be getting into but it just makes you realize everything happens for a reason," Maher said. "I'm here, I have one degree and another one on the way after this year, so I can't complain. I've made more friends, had more teammates and created more memories. It's been worth it, but not what I expected."

As a senior at North Penn, Maher helped lead the Knights to a District 1-4A girls basketball title in the winter, then excelled at the plate and in the outfield for the Knights' District 1 runner-up and state playoff softball squad that spring. Always a competitor, Maher wanted the challenge of playing two sports at the college level while also pursuing a degree in Law and Society.

What should have been a freshman year that saw the 6-foot forward push for minutes never materialized as Maher broke her left leg in practice, putting her out for at least half the season. A handful of various other medical issues followed and the Rams coaching staff opted to have Maher redshirt the season. She still got the chance to practice and workout with the team once her leg healed and Maher still played softball that spring, but her clashes with adversity were just beginning.

Hoping her second year on campus would be better, Maher instead suffered a crushing injury when she tore the Achilles tendon in her right leg on the first day of basketball's preseason. A devastating injury that often involves at least a year of recovery and rehab, many athletes still aren't the same if they are able to come back from it.

"In high school, I played for two very competitive programs and I'm a competitive person in general, so to basically take two years off and not be able to compete at all is very hard," Maher said. "It makes you focus on other things than just athletics and forces you to become a more well-rounded person. By the time I got to play, I wasn't taking anything for granted."

Maher, who aims to pursue a career in federal law enforcement, admitted she thought about walking away.

Ultimately, her competitive spirit and her love of the two sports prevented Maher from hanging it up. Though Maher, who is going into her fifth year as a student, said she had the support of her family and coaches had she decided to walk away, it just wasn't something she was ready to do.

"I really did think about stepping away just mentally and because I didn't know how much more my body could take, it was a major injury to both legs, but I just missed it too much and I couldn't see not playing," Maher said. "I want to go into a career where I'm using my body and I want to be able to chase around my kids one day. It's something I thought about, but I would have regretted not trying to play."

Her innate drive to be the best on the hardwood and softball field also applied academically. After her freshman season-ending broken leg, and heeding women's basketball coach Tom Shirley's frequent advice, Maher lined up her class work so she would graduate with her bachelor's degree in Law and Society early and be able to pursue her master's.

Given two medical redshirts, Maher said she actually has two years of eligibility left heading into this school year. The forward/outfielder joked she's "running out of degrees" and set to finish her Master of Business Administration this year, is however planning for this to be her final season in both sports.

"I'm competitive in the classroom as much as I am athletically," Maher said. "I graduated a semester early because I knew I was going to be getting my master's and it would be challenging for me while playing two sports. I gave myself three semester to get my master's, it's just time management and thinking ahead."

Maher's recovery from her Achilles injury was an arduous one. On top of the already long road back, she had some lingering nerve issues that held her out of basketball preseason the next year and have changed her game quite a bit.

Although she's listed as a forward on Jefferson's roster, Maher has shown plenty of her guard skills this summer. While she said she's lost a bit of speed and can't get to the basket the way she did at North Penn, Maher finished second on Jefferson in 3-point shooting last year at 38 percent (60-of-158) and hit five treys in her team's Summer League semifinal win on Thursday.

"There's things I can't do that I have to be mindful of," Maher said. "I can't jump off my right leg at all, my calf just doesn't work, so a left-handed layup, I have to take it with my right hand and off my left leg. Things about my game are a little more unorthodox, I have to create more space for myself because I can't jump as high. Things change, but I'm used to it."

During those first few months after tearing her Achilles, Maher credited her roommates and other teammates for pushing her to stay a part of the team. Rehab and recovery can be an isolating process, but Maher's teammates all but dragged her to their workouts or training sessions, even if she could only sit and watch.

Once she was allowed to start using her leg again, Maher said she started shooting with her teammates as soon as possible and developed a one-legged fadeaway shot, like the one Dirk Nowitzki has used for years, that she now calls one of her favorite shots.

"It was the game and how much I love it," Maher said. "When it happened, I never wanted to go to basketball. The girls would ask if I wanted to go to a workout and I would say 'why would I want to go watch you do the one thing I can't do?' At some point, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, told myself everything happens for a reason and I was supposed to go through this to get better and stronger and tougher individually and as a teammate. You give yourself a kick in the butt to get through it and slowly but surely, that light at the end of the tunnel gets closer."

Despite missing preseason of her third year on campus, it was finally time for Maher to suit up and play in a college game. Shirley told Maher he was going to ease her in and while the forward ended up playing in all 29 games that season, she only started seven.

Considered a redshirt sophomore that year, Maher averaged 6.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game but showed plenty of flashes of her old self, including a 20-point game in the first game she started and eight double-figure scoring games that season.

"Nothing was like the real thing, my heart was beating out of my chest," Maher said. "It's something so simple, I'd done it a million times since I was 6 years old but suddenly, it means so much more to you. For me, I realized that anything could happen at any moment and any game could be your last game so I just went out there, I was so excited, took my first shot which was a three and it went in. That was it, a weight came off my shoulders and I could breathe a little bit more."

Maher admitted there were a lot of ups and downs that season, still battling her body while dealing with the lingering after-effects of her injury. She didn't play softball that spring and didn't feel like her skills really came all the way back for another full year, adding this past season was the one where she felt all the way back.

It showed in her numbers this winter, as Jefferson made the CACC tournament final and secured an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II tournament. Her redshirt junior campaign, which also brought inclusion on the CACC All-Academic team, saw Maher start and play in all 32 games with an average of 30 minutes per game plus 9.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists. She was the CACC Player of the Week for the week ending Dec. 4, 2017 and posted 14 double-digit scoring games plus a career-high 26 point game.

"I got to watch 10 girls graduate after going through the program and girls I came in with were juniors by the time I was finally on the court," Maher said. "College basketball is a lot different than high school basketball, the girls are bigger, faster and stronger, you have a shot clock and the coaching is more intense. They're all things I was able to watch and adjust to mentally before I put my feet on the court.

"I had doubts, you're scared to get hurt again, it's natural and I think I played that way my first year back. This past year I was able to breathe a little easier and this year will be moreso."

Coming from a sprawling high school like North Penn, where she graduated with in a class of about 1,000 and going to a small school like Jefferson was an adjustment for Maher. Not having basketball, which was a major part of her identity, for two years, made the adjustment a little more challenging but also allowed Maher to be reflective.

"You have to ask 'where do I belong?' That's who I am, I've been the big man on campus at North Penn and now I had to create a new name for myself," Maher said. "I had to do it in other ways, academically or being a better family member, a better friend, a better student, really anything and everything."

Maher also returned to softball this spring, where she hit .270 in 22 games. Playing one sport in college is tough enough, but by playing two, Maher makes some sacrifices on both ends to do it while also maintain her academic workload.

"It's almost like my break after basketball for my body because it's not as physically demanding, although it's still demanding in its own way," Maher said. "I really only get in about two-thirds of the season and it's tough because you have to win a spot after not being there for preseason but it's a challenge I've always liked to accept. I like my schedule busy and that certainly does it for me."

North Penn has also played a large part in Maher's ability to push through and thrive at Jefferson. Playing for Maggie deMarteleire in basketball and Rick Torresani in softball built a foundation that Maher said she didn't necessarily recognize in the moment during high school but that made a lot more sense when she was out of action in college.

"I can't say enough about the nature of the people, the teammates and the coaches I was really lucky to have at North Penn," Maher said. "Coach Torresani and Coach deMarteleire prepared me over the top for this. If I didn't have them, I feel like I had a big step up over a ton of other girls. I'm forever indebted to North Penn for the memories and the preparation it gave me."

Basketball is a game fueled by emotion and it perfectly matches Maher's outgoing personality. The game brought her back, so she's tried to give back by being someone younger teammates can go to and will be one of Jefferson's captains this winter. For the summer, that means Maher doesn't just show up and play, she brings some equipment and helps manage rotations and minutes with NCAA rules prohibiting any Jefferson coaches from running the team.

Fittingly, the Summer League championship will be contested between Jefferson's team and the USciences' team on Tuesday. USciences knocked off Jefferson in the CACC final last winter and it's a title the Rams have their sets on for this upcoming season.

Even now, Maher is still working hard to keep getting better. Shaped by the path she's already taken and even with clear sights on what's coming ahead, Maher knows that whatever happens along the way, it'll all be for a reason.

"I am extremely grateful I get to be a kid for another year, that I get to graduate with two degrees that I'm going to get to use, it's been rocky, there's been ups and downs but like I said, everything happens for a reason," Maher said. "We came really, really close to doing something special last year and we feel this year is the year to do it."