Boys basketball: This Wildcat tries hoops

Jan. 16—NEW LONDON — Luke Knudsen has to be part of the action.

When a spinal injury ended Knudsen's promising wrestling career as a junior, he needed something to do. A week later, Knudsen joined the

New London-Spicer

boys basketball team despite never playing the sport competitively. He spent the second half of his junior year practicing with the squad and getting acclimated to a new winter sport.

"I couldn't wrestle anymore and I can't sit on the couch," Knudsen said. "I wanted to compete.

"I'd never played basketball before but I love every sport because you get to compete. So when it comes down to it, I wanted to compete in something so I switched to basketball. ... I have a lot of fun with it; (Competing's) my favorite thing."

One of eight seniors on the NLS boys basketball team, Knudsen played his first game last Friday in the Wildcats' 65-64 loss to Glencoe-Silver Lake. Coming off the bench in his season debut, Knudsen scored six points on 2 of 4 shooting from the field and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line. He added a rebound, an assist and a steal. He also played the closing minutes of the game as a defensive stopper.

NLS head coach Skip Wright admitted he didn't think he had an impact player when Knudsen joined. But, Knudsen's competitiveness proved otherwise.

"He showed early on that he can play and he's kind of a disrupter out there," Wright said. "I knew Luke was just a unique athlete and just a kid of really high character and someone that was going to be a value to our team."

Knudsen was on high at the end of his freshman wrestling season.

In the COVID-shortened 2021 season, Knudsen went 38-2 and reached the

Class AA 113-pound state championship match

, losing to Princeton's Tyler Wells by tech fall in the final.

If everything went according to plan, Knudsen had three seasons to potentially become a state champion.

"It makes me excited for the future years," Knudsen said after the state tournament at St. Michael-Albertville High School.

That plan changed very quickly. According to Knudsen, he was injured in the first match of his sophomore year. Knudsen couldn't remember the name of the injury, saying that "I put that behind me."

The diagnosis was cervical foraminal stenosis, according to Luke's mom, Tracy Knudsen, who works as a registered nurse.

Foraminal stenosis is a condition where narrowing in the spine compresses the nerves. Tracy said Luke's compression was in the C4-C5-C6 vertebrae in his neck. It was affecting Luke's left arm, causing it to go weak and numb.

Luke did come back and put together a 19-6 record as a junior but was shut down in late January before the section and state tournaments.

"I was never really the same all year," Knudsen said. "I came back for football and I thought it would heal over the summer and it didn't."

The family sought several opinions. They tried steroid treatments, injections and physical therapy to help alleviate the pinched nerve.

As a junior, he wrestled one tournament before the injury flared up again. With the risk of permanent nerve damage, Luke stepped away from wrestling. At one point, Tracy said Luke's left arm was down to 10% strength.

"It just made my (left) arm go limp and had no control of it," Luke said, "It wasn't safe for me to keep wrestling so I got shut down."

In wrestling, Luke had a career record of 139-23, 14th all-time at the school heading into the 2023-24 season, according to the Guillotine, a state-wide wrestling publication. Of note, he beat his dad Troy's career record of 120-45. Troy was a 1997 NLS grad.

Luke still had that competitive itch. So he stepped off the mat and onto the court.

In those junior-year practices, Wright saw a spark from Luke. Sure, there was a learning curve with the rules and terminology. He had to get used to a different kind of training in basketball. But, Luke showed the coaches he could definitely play.

"We played a fair amount this summer and it was clear that he was going to be a real impact player," Wright said.

"He's a quick study," Wright added. "He's an extraordinary athlete; I've never been around somebody that could do what he did as far as switching from wrestling his whole grade-school and high-school career and then go out for basketball his senior year."

Luke is a three-sport athlete at NLS, also playing football and baseball. To help with his stenosis, Luke moved from middle linebacker to safety in an effort to save his shoulder. He also played more on offense.

During the football season, injuries once again threatened to derail the winter sports season.

This time, a torn ligament in his ankle cost Luke the second half of the football season. He also missed the first six weeks of the basketball season.

"I thought the wrestling one would be as bad as it could get," Luke said, "and this one proved to be a lot worse. It was devastating for the football part of it and then going into basketball."

"But," Luke continued, "I'm just grateful to be back."

In the first week of the new year, Luke said he got strength back in his ankle and was able to start practicing. He had just four days of practice before suiting up for his season debut.

When Luke checked in, there weren't any nerves. The feeling? "It was excitement," Luke said.

Over the second half of the season, Wright envisions Luke as one of the team's better defensive players who can also crash the offensive boards and create offense off turnovers.

"The fact he hasn't played this season yet and he's only practiced four days, I thought he did a phenomenal job," Wright said. "I was comfortable having him out there in the end (against GSL) because I know that he's going to make plays and he's going to be really strong defensively and that's what we needed."

The NLS gym has posters up for all the senior athletes in winter sports. After being a state finalist as a freshman, it's hard to envision Luke with the basketball players instead of the wall with the wrestlers. During the GSL game, friends in the student section regularly told the opposing team they were going up against a wrestler.

No matter the sport, Luke's happy to be on the gym wall. Because it means he's competing.

"I'm excited for what we got here, for sure," Luke said. "It was the first game and I got a lot of room to grow. Hopefully, we just keep going up.

"This is definitely where I want to be."