As Hayley Kropp leaned against a wall in a small hallway just outside Newberry College’s Eleazer Arena, the tears occasionally slipping down her cheek could have come from any number of frustrations.
Coker’s last-minute loss to Newberry that definitively ended the Cobras’ hopes of qualifying for the South Atlantic Conference postseason tournament. The final road game of her college basketball career and a step closer to the end. A cold that kept her voice to barely above a whisper.
The throbbing pain in her left knee.
Basketball has become largely guts with little glory for the former Polk County standout. The sport she loves as much as anything in life, the one that has taken her on a journey from Polk’s youth leagues to college arenas across the country, has become a daily grind of battling her body just to step onto the court.
Kropp’s final collegiate game is set for Saturday, a Senior Day matchup with UVA-Wise. How much she’ll actually get to play in that farewell is very much up in the air.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Kropp said. “Right now I’m in a lot of pain, but I’m trying to stick it out. It’s been a ride.”
The ups and downs that have been Kropp’s senior season began almost a year ago.
Following a junior season that began slowly due to an injury, Kropp underwent kneecap realignment surgery on her left knee in April 2019, hoping for a pain-free final year at Coker, where she transferred after playing her freshman season at Guilford Technical Community College. There she averaged almost 12 points per game in helping lead GTCC to the national junior college tourney. Her first two seasons at Coker, she averaged a team-best 11.2 points as a sophomore and 9.2 points as a junior.
But in the wake of that knee procedure almost a year ago, Kropp said her bone didn’t grow fully back to where it should have. Doctors tried to stimulate more bone growth in a variety of ways and, for a time, those efforts helped. Kropp played limited minutes in three early games this season, then sat out for a month and considered taking a redshirt and returning next season. Ultimately, she decided to forego the redshirt and finish her career.
“I just decided I didn’t want to go through another big surgery because if the surgery didn’t work again, I just didn’t want to go through that,” Kropp said. “Also I don’t think I want to get my master’s right now.
“We really haven’t figured out the problem yet. Hopefully, after spring break, we’re going to try to figure out what the problem is.”
Kropp returned to the Coker lineup on Jan. 22 and slowly began to regain her scoring touch. She had 15 points in a Feb. 5 loss over Queens, then 12 the next week at Catawba. Kropp made her first start of the season on Feb. 15 against Lenoir-Rhyne and played 35 minutes, scoring 10 points in a 59-54 win.
With the end of the season at hand, though, Kropp suffered a setback in last Saturday’s loss at Tusculum. Though she played 34 minutes and scored 14 points, the game took a toll on her knee, leaving her unable to practice before Wednesday’s trip to Newberry. She started that game, but only played in small spurts throughout, finishing with five points on 2-of-3 shooting and a rebound in 16 minutes.
“In the past three games, I was playing like 35 minutes,” Kropp said. “I was playing pretty decent, not too consistent, but pretty decent.
“After the game (at Tusculum), I don’t know if I hit it too many times or did too much pounding on it, but I just couldn’t walk Sunday or Monday or Tuesday, really. I just tried to lay back and recover, but obviously, it’s still not 100 percent.”
Yet amid all the pain and all the frustration, there has been good.
Kropp has always been driven by goals, dating back to her days at Polk County where she focused on being the best player in school history. She largely did just that, her 1,637 points more than anyone in a Wolverine jersey has ever scored, her name repeated frequently in the school record book.
Her statistics this season – 5.9 points and 1.8 rebounds per game – are far below her expectations and the goals she set for her final year. Yet Kropp has learned to put that into perspective, to frame that in life lessons she hopes will serve her beyond graduation.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I’ve only played (14) games, so that’s been frustrating. But I’ve learned to be a better teammate. I’ve learned a lot about myself and there’s a lot more to basketball and a lot more to life.
“It’s taught me a lot. It’s still frustrating because I have these goals. I like to set my goals and to reach them. They say everything happens for a reason, and I’ve found that reason now. I think I’ve grown as a person and as a teammate.”
At her side for that growth has been her twin sister, Ashley, who also attends Coker and has served as a team manager. The two have lived together at Coker and were often side-by-side on the Cobras’ bench throughout the Newberry game.
“If you have a chance to go to school with your sister, go,” Kropp said. “We’ve made a lot of memories and gotten closer. It’s just awesome. Ashley’s always supportive. I wouldn’t be able to get through things without her and my coaching staff. It’s been good.”
The Kropps plan to move to Indiana later this year after graduation, and Hayley hopes to find a job with an organization tied to basketball. She’s not ready to consider coaching, but admits it could be something she pursues in the future. She definitely wants to remain connected to the sport.
She’ll play it for the final time Saturday as a scholastic athlete.
“It’s hard, things coming to an end,” she said. “It’s crazy that Saturday will be the last game.
“It’s been a journey, and I’ve learned a lot.”