GWINN, Mich. (WJMN) – Gwinn’s Lena Pleaugh will go down as one of the best ever to suit up for the Modeltowners. But, her career almost ended before it ever really got a chance to begin.
“Lena, her sophomore year, we had to pull the plug on her sophomore year pretty early,” said Justin Maki, head coach, Gwinn Girls’ Basketball. “She fell a couple of times during the season and couldn’t feel her legs. She went to Marquette and got diagnosed with a nerve injury in her spine and they told her that her basketball career was over.”
Pleaugh wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Luckily her parents went to Mayo (Clinic) and got a second diagnosis,” said Maki. “She had to work really hard, extensively at physical therapy and she didn’t get cleared until her right before her junior year of volleyball season.”
Coming off of her injury, Pleaugh returned even stronger than she was before. During her junior season, she averaged 16.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. She was named to the West-Pac All-Conference First Team and Mid-Pen All-Conference First team. She received the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award, presented annually by the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association to an athlete who demonstrates perseverance in overcoming a handicap to participate in athletics.
“Basketball is home to her,” said Maki. “Being in the gym, it’s her sanctuary being in the gym. So, taking basketball away is not an option.”
“Simply, I don’t like to lose,” said Pleaugh. “My parents were that way. Everything I’ve done in life has been a competition. I feel like I step out on the court and I always put myself out there as no one else is better than I am.
Pleaugh would continue to thrive as a leader both on and off the court. She finished her senior season averaging 17.7 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, and 3 assists. Most importantly the Modeltowners took a step forward as a program. Just two years removed from a 1-19 season, the improvement was a refreshing sign that the program is moving in the right direction under the guidance of second year head coach, Justin Maki.
“Very, very proud that they bought in,” said Maki. “That they believed in themselves more importantly. We didn’t get as many wins as we wanted to but the results were a lot better than the year before. It was a tremendous improvement from my first year to my second. I’m very proud of how the season transpired even though we went 5-16.”
“It was a good season,” said Pleaugh. “We had a good group of girls. I think our chemistry was good with us and that make a big difference. It was our first year of high school having a coach two years in a row. To have one two years in a row that took time out of his day to spend the summer with us, to spend time putting in the work with us is super nice. If he wasn’t there, or we didn’t have something, he was there every single day. If he expected us to be there he was going to be there with us.”
Pleaugh’s career came to an end in the first round of Districts against Ishpeming. She says she was hit with a rush of emotions leaving the court she worked so hard to get back to for the final time.
“It was extremely emotional,” said Pleaugh. “Obviously it was a really sad moment because you’re never going to step foot on your high school gym again and that’s where I pretty much learned to play basketball. This gym offered me so much, it made me into the person I am. I was in here from anytime from 5 in the morning playing basketball to midnight, when we had an open gym here from midnight to two in the morning. There was never a time where I wasn’t in here if I could get in here.”
Through her hard work and perseverance, Pleaugh not only earned the respect of her teammates, but also of her opposition.
“Lena Pleaugh from Gwinn is one of the classiest players I’ve had to compete against for four years,” said Ishpeming head coach Ryan Reichel after playing Gwinn in the postseason. “Every student athlete should try and model to be that kind of kid.”
“That’s really the goal, you want to be a respectable player,” said Pleaugh. “You want to be someone who other coaches love watching play. That was super nice of him to do that and that is something I will always remember.”
Pleaugh’s next chapter will take her take her to Lake Superior State where she recently signed to play basketball.
“I actually just decided I was going to go there this past Monday,” said Pleaugh. “We went down there and met the coach and he put me through a workout. I loved the coaching staff, I loved talking to all of them. I loved the facilities they have there and their nursing program which I will be going into after high school. It was one of the best programs I have ever seen while looking through colleges. I just get to continue playing basketball and that’s what I really wanted.”
And she will take an important lesson she learned from coach Maki with her.
“The biggest thing he pushed out to us was never get too high and never get too low,” said Pleaugh. “Not only is basketball a game of ups and downs, but life’s a game of ups and downs. When you’re on the high, you can’t get too high up there and when you’re on the low, you can’t get too low down there. Just keep riding the wave.”
“I was very lucky to have her my first two years,” said Maki. “So, I raised expectations and standards and Lena was 100% bought in. I think that the upper classman and the juniors that are about to be seniors saw that and they learned a lot from that. So, moving forward I think Lena is going to be a positive impact on this program years beyond her being here being a successful program and sustaining it. So, her impact is going to be felt and it’s going to be felt for a long time.”