By JESSE SMITHEY
From a hospital bed to the heights of District 4-AA basketball, Karli Haworth has experienced it all this season.
In a three-month span, the Alcoa sophomore point guard has shown an unrelenting toughness and measure of leadership in front of teammates, classmates and the Tornado fan base.
All that’s on her mind right now, though, are playoff victories.
It’s the same mindset of tenacity that brought her through recent physical ailment that has now powered the Lady Tornadoes to contender status in Class AA.
District 4-AA top-seed Alcoa opens postseason play at home Friday in the district tournament semifinals against either Kingston or Austin-East.
“We’re ready. We’ve had so many setbacks and contact traces,” said Haworth. “We weren’t 100 percent (midway through the season). It was getting in shape and then getting out of shape with games cancelled (because of Covid concerns).
“We’re just ready for this postseason, because we think we have a good strong team that could do a lot for us. We think we can make a difference in this postseason. So we’re excited and ready for it.”
The 5-foot-5 Haworth entered the high school ranks a season ago and teamed up with then-senior Destiny Haworth — Karli’s sister — to lead Alcoa to a District 4-AA championship and 21 wins. While Karli had moments of scoring brilliance, running the point and defense were her responsibilities.
And Karli Haworth performed those with great flare and a sense of duty.
“That’s the first thing that stands out her — her competitiveness and will to win,” said Alcoa coach David Baumann. “She plays hard and plays with a ton of energy. She impacts the game in so many ways, especially as a defender. She’s one of the better on-ball defenders in the area. She does a great job of hounding people.
“And, secondly, her ball-handling. Probably in the 20-plus years of coaching guys and girls, I’d say she’s the best ball-handler that I’ve coached.”
So entering the 2020-21 season, Haworth was to be one of the top guards in the area. With her sister graduated and on the roster at the University of the Cumberlands, Karli Haworth’s level of import with the Lady Tornadoes needed to grow. Alcoa needed more points and leadership from her this time around.
“(Destiny) had always led the team, through her actions and vocally,” said Karli. “We’re a really young team (this year). And I realized that me and our really young teammates, who are sophomores, really needed to pick it up. Because that’s what Destiny did for our teams, and we needed that role to be filled.”
But as the start of this season inched closer, Haworth fell ill the first week of November. She had emergency surgery Nov. 6 to remove an inflamed appendix. “It was probably the worst pain I’ve ever been in,” said Haworth. “It was all a huge rush for my family. It was unexpected.”
Just days before the surgery, she couldn’t stand up straight. The pain intensified and regurgitations happened often — and without ceasing.
Like any dedicated athlete, Haworth’s mind immediately fretted over her status for the season. She wanted to know when she would be back.
Though she lost her appendix, doctors gave her good news. Since her appendix hadn’t ruptured, physicians cleared her to return to contact sport after just two weeks. That would have been more like 5-6 weeks had her appendix burst.
Also in Haworth’s favor was the fact that Alcoa’s basketball season didn’t start until a Dec. 7 matchup with Class AA power Grainger. High school basketball seasons typically begin in mid-to-late November, but Alcoa pushed the start into December for Covid-19 precautions.
That allowed Haworth to return without missing a game.
But the road back didn’t feature a smooth re-entry.
Alcoa’s schedule was front-loaded. Not only was Grainger, a 32-win 2020 Class AA state tournament team, kicking off the season slate but contests with Oak Ridge, Bearden, Stone Memorial, Jefferson County and McMinn Central also followed that opener in December. Those five opponents combined for 127 wins the previous season.
And while Haworth was cleared to return a couple weeks after surgery, the timeframe for a 100-percent recovery can be roughly six months, she said. Alcoa started 0-4 and entered 2021 with a 2-4 record.
“The first first three or games back, I did not look good,” she said. “I was very out of shape. I was really struggling and wasn’t playing well.
“Finally, I started practicing like normal and playing like normal. It was probably my fifth or sixth game that I really kicked it in.”
A win over Bearden, now the No. 1 team in Class AAA and a nationally ranked program by MaxPreps, was the panacea the Lady Tornadoes needed. Since that 47-45 win over Bearden on Jan. 5, Alcoa finished its district schedule unbeaten (8-0) and enters the postseason 16-9.
Haworth has played in 24 games and averaged 12 points, three assists and three steals per outing. She has connected on a team-high 47 3-pointers, and she oftentimes logs 30-32 minutes per game.
District 4-AA coaches selected her as their league’s most valuable player.
That’s quite the turnaround from an early November trip to the hospital for an emergency surgery.
So don’t expect Haworth or Alcoa to be an easy out in the playoffs. They’ve come too far to tap out.
“She’ll still have some times where it bothers her, there inside where she had (the inflamed appendix). She’ll get hit sometimes or she’s fallen,” said Baumann.
“I’ll ask her if she’s good. She’ll go, ‘I’m good. I’m good.’ She won’t let me take her out.”