HONOLULU — The return of football to the University of Hawai‘i campus this spring has also brought another anticipated return for the Warriors squad: The welcome site of a healthy Sean Shigematsu.
The Warriors kicked off its spring practices two weeks ago and it marked the first time Shigematsu returned to the field since suffering a knee injury last fall.
“My knee feels good,” the Kapa‘a alum said after a practice this week. “It hurt a little for the first week but now I’m going full speed and it feels fine.”
Last fall, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive lineman was set to make a splash for the Warriors in his redshirt freshman season. Shigematsu started the first game of the year — a 34-17 home win over Colorado — and was looking to continue his breakout season when the Warriors took the field in Seattle, Wash. against the University of Washington Huskies. In the fourth quarter of that game, Shigematsu’s plans for the season were dashed when a Washington player fell onto his left knee, tearing his ACL and MCL.
“He just came up underneath me, hit my knee and I heard a pop,” Shigematsu told The Garden Island in September. “When I heard that, I had a good idea it wasn’t going to be good. I couldn’t move.”
Shigematsu’s season was over and what followed was a grueling stretch of recovery and rehab. After surgery Shigematsu said he started physical therapy on the knee within the week.
“It was a painful first week,” said Shigematsu, noting the initial rehab focused on bending and moving the knee in order to regain his range of motion. “It hurt a lot but I knew the pain would bring eventual glory.”
UH Assistant Athletic Trainer Jayson Goo said the hardest part of rehab for Shigematsu — or any athlete trying to come back from a knee injury — is regaining the strength to compete. Goo said knee ligament tears can heal over time, but it takes an accelerated process in order to get an athlete back onto the field.
“To do the work that it takes to come back and play at a Division I level is difficult,” Goo said. “Sean worked very hard. It’s a battle to get ready in that amount of time.”
The hard work Shigematsu put into his rehab has paid off. A week before spring drills started, Shigematsu was cleared to resume full-contact football. The clearance came just in time too. Not only had Shigematsu been anxiously waiting to get back onto the field, but now he has a new coach to impress.
After the Warriors’ disappointing 6-7 2011 season, head coach Greg McMackin retired. McMackin was replaced by Norm Chow, a coach who, Shigematsu said, has everyone starting back at square one.
“They’re not looking at who was starting last year and who didn’t,” Shigematsu said. “Everything is based on right now.”
Shigematsu said he’s noticed a much quicker tempo to the practices this spring. His knee is holding up fine, he said, and he’s doing his best to not think about it during practice. Because of the higher-tempo practices, Shigematsu has actually found one positive out of his knee injury: he’s lighter.
Shigematsu said he was 312 pounds at the start of the season, but now he’s hovering around 295 pounds.
“I’m actually pretty glad about that,” he said. “I can definitely move around a little faster.”
Making it back for spring drills was first on the list of Shigematsu’s goals following surgery. But his ultimate plan is to reclaim his role as a starter for the Warriors when they take the field in their season opener Sept. 1 against USC.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for almost a year. I can’t wait to play again.”
• Tyson Alger, sports writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or by emailing talger@ thegardenisland.com. Follow him on twitter.com/tysonalger.