Duquesne's Vanessa Abel didn't want to just make a comeback -- she wanted to come back even better.
That's why she worked out six hours daily after a second surgery on her left knee in May. Her workout partner was Duquesne coach Suzie McConnell-Serio.
"Not for all six hours," Abel said with a laugh before a recent practice. "It was her idea. I had no motivation and there were days when I didn't want to get out of bed. She would call and then pick me up. I had to rebuild all the muscles in my left leg. I had to learn how to walk again ... to run again."
Abel, a 5-foot-5 guard who graduated from Southmoreland High School, was sweating all that time to get into peak shape without knowing whether she would play basketball again for Duquesne. The NCAA twice denied her request for a sixth year of eligibility, but her mother, Maryann Kraynak, wouldn't take no for an answer.
"My mother is very aggressive," Abel said, smiling. "She called the NCAA and went back to Duquesne and said we could apply again. You have to have two reasons for the NCAA to grant the sixth year and I had only one the first two times -- I lost a year after transferring from West Virginia as a freshman even though I never played there. After my injury last season, I had a second reason."
Abel played in 15 games last season before having surgery in January 2012.
"I was experiencing knee pain, but I thought it was just a bruise. By the fifth or sixth game the pain increased and by the 15th game I was hobbling on one leg."
Abel continued to attend graduate school and is on course to earn her MBA in sports leadership this spring.
"I was set on moving on," she said. "I didn't want to get my hopes up that I was going to play any more basketball at Duquesne."
After a grueling summer of individual workouts, Abel was forced to sit and watch the Dukes practice in the fall because she wasn't allowed to participate under NCAA rules.
"I was sitting there watching when I was told I got a phone call," she said. "I didn't want to answer because I thought it was going to be bad news. When I was told I could put on a uniform, I didn't believe it at first."
When she returned to the gym, practice was over. But the next day -- Dec. 8 -- Abel played six minutes in a 70-61 victory against Pitt.
"I thought I'd come back and be the old Vanessa. Maybe a better Vanessa," said Abel, who was 10 pounds lighter than her previous playing weight. "I got a rude awakening. Coaches told me to be patient, but ... "
As a junior, Abel was third-team All-Atlantic 10 Conference and was second in the league with 157 assists and fourth with 81 steals.
Abel returned to a Duquesne team that was 7-1 with a set rotation.
"I wanted things to happen quickly, but I didn't want to step on people," she said. "I knew I had to ease my way back and I didn't want to disrupt things. They had great chemistry."
Abel came off the bench her first eight games before moving into the starting lineup when Jocelyn Floyd injured her shoulder. She has started the past seven games, averaging 7.4 points, and had 12 points in a season-high 43 minutes in a 63-59 double-overtime victory two weeks ago against George Washington.
Abel scored a season-high 13 points in a 63-54 defeat Feb. 3 at Charlotte that ended a six-game winning streak.
Since then, the Dukes have come back strong with back-to-back victories, the most recent of which was Sunday, a 59-54 conquest of Richmond in which Abel scored 12 points, including 10 in the second half, along with six assists. That gives Duquesne a 19-4 overall record, 8-1 in the Atlantic 10, a game behind Dayton (21-1, 9-0). The two will play Monday at Dayton after the Dukes play host Wednesday to Saint Joseph's.
"I still have a lot of work to do ... I'd say I'm more than 75 percent back," she said. "My explosiveness with the ball in my hand still isn't there yet, but it's coming. I try not to think about my knee, but I do sometimes. I'm getting over it.
"Playing basketball again makes this season even more special. When you've played the game since fourth grade and it's taken away, that can be real depressing. ... I lost some speed, but I have my brain. I look at this as a life experience."