Rumson Star Elijah McAllister Returns From Torn ACL to Boost the Bulldogs
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Watching his guards chasing ball-handlers into the paint after getting beat off the dribble in practice last week, Rumson-Fair Haven boys basketball coach Chris Champeau blew the whistle in exasperation.
He then turned to the 6-foot-6, 230-pound defensive menace standing in the middle.
"I said, 'Can you introduce yourself to the team?''' Champeau said. "He said, 'Hello, I'm Elijah McAllister,' and they started laughing. I'm like, 'Guys we have him here now, so if your guy beats you, just play weakside help.
After a nearly eight-month absence thanks to a torn ACL in his right knee suffered in June, the junior dynamo has returned to the court for the Bulldogs as one of the biggest mid-season difference-makers in the Shore Conference. Saturday's 52-38 win over old rival Red Bank Catholic marked his second game back on the floor and his first home game since missing the entire football season and half of the basketball season while rehabbing the injury.
"The only thing that was a problem today was conditioning,'' said McAllister, who has been on a minutes restriction in his first two games. "Defensively, I am already right back to where I was."
McAllister finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks in the win over the Caseys, illustrating how much his presence boosts a Bulldogs team that has more than compensated for his absence in a 14-1 start in which their only loss is to Roselle Catholic, a top-three team in the state. It took him all of 1:17 into Saturday's game before he swatted a shot that ignited a fast break.
"Coach Shemp says we can gamble on defense now because he blocks everything,'' said junior guard Teddy Sourlis. "You saw how he affects the game."
"He's a difference-maker,'' Champeau said. "It's that simple."
Summer of Frustration
Coming off a promising sophomore football season in which he helped Rumson win a third straight NJSIAA sectional title, McAllister's recruiting profile as a tight end/defensive end was dramatically rising heading into last summer.
He had already secured 11 scholarship offers from the likes of Tennessee, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Syracuse when disaster struck.
McAllister was playing in an AAU basketball tournament in Los Angeles for Team Rio, which features the starting lineup from the Shore's No. 1 team, Ranney, including nationally-ranked sophomore prospects Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine. He suffered a knee injury that didn't appear that serious at first, but ultimately was found to be a torn ACL.
A summer in which his recruitment was poised to explode ended abruptly with surgery on June 14.
"You can't go back and change history,'' he said. "I had to accept that I tore my ACL and I had to accept I was going to be out for seven months."
"He was pretty upset, and so was I because he's my best friend,'' Sourlis said. "We just knew that we were going to have to step up until we got him back."
The depression didn't last long, as McAllister went right to work. Less than a week after his surgery, he walked into the Rumson weight room on crutches and began knocking out bench press reps with Rumson strength and conditioning coach Rob Orrok.
"He is tough as nails,'' Orrok said.
He also didn't have to deal with the anxiety that all of his college interest was going to vanish or precipitously decline. McAllister's recruitment shows how much things have changed in the past decade as far as schools evaluating athletes with serious injuries. Rather than programs backing off out of fear, even more schools have come in on him despite the fact that he didn't step on a football field at all this fall because the rehab process for a torn ACL has become so refined.
A coach from Nebraska was in to see him in person last week during basketball practice, and he also said Michigan, Ohio State, Texas and Alabama have shown interest.
"It shows how much hard work I've put in to get back here,'' he said.
"I was worried for him at first, but (college coaches) trust the rehab process for this particular injury,'' Orrok said. "His injured leg is probably stronger than his other leg now after all the work he has done."
McAllister also inadvertently found a mentor during his rehabilitation thanks to a stroke of luck. He was doing much of his work at Reach Your Potential Training (RYPT) in Tinton Falls, where former Wall and Rutgers standout Tim Wright also happened to be working to recover from a torn ACL. Wright is a tight end for the Detroit Lions who spent the season on injured reserve after tearing up his knee in May.
"He's been a big help with my football skills like releases and route running because he also plays tight end, and he just helped me become a better overall athlete,'' McAllister said. "Honestly, he's one of my best friends. As an older guy and a Shore Conference guy, he is a mentor that I really look up to."
Returning to the Court
After watching the Bulldogs football team become just the third program in Shore Conference history to win four straight state sectional titles in the fall, McAllister had no intentions of sitting out basketball season.
"People are like, 'Why are you playing basketball when you have all these (football) offers?" he said. "I'm sitting here like I want to put this school in the best position I can and put a banner up in every sport that I possibly can."
"My heart sunk when I first heard the news over the summer, but he texted me right back and said, 'I'm still gonna play hoops,''' Champeau said. "I never said a word because I respect (his football situation). We're in practice the other day and Nebraska's here, and Michigan is coming, so I understand, but at the same time his friends are on the team, and he wants to play.
"I spoke with his father and his father is saying he's writing his own story. He can do what he wants to do."
McAllister has been an impact basketball player on varsity since he was a freshman shot-blocker on the team led by current Dartmouth guard Brendan Barry that won the program's first Shore Conference Tournament title by stunning Christian Brothers Academy.
College coaches have noticed, as he has gotten basketball interest from schools in the Patriot League, America East Conference, Seton Hall and others, according to Champeau. His career is similar to that of former Middletown North star Shilique Calhoun, who was a raw football prospect in high school with offers from major FBS powers as well as a basketball standout who had mid-major offers. Calhoun chose football, became a star at Michigan State and is now an outside linebacker for the Oakland Raiders after being drafted in the third round last year.
"That's a decision I'll make when the time comes,'' McAallister said. "Obviously I could still grow. A 6-10 football player is crazy, so I wouldn't mind playing either in college."
Gunning for a Title
McAllister's main focus right now is boosting a Bulldogs team that is trying to lock down the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group II as they shoot for the program's first sectional title.
He was limited to four minutes per quarter in his first game back, a win over Raritan on Friday, and then a little over five minutes per quarter in the victory over RBC as he tries to get his conditioning level back to normal. Defensively, he already looks once again like one of the state's most ferocious shot-blockers.
His presence in the paint also opens up the perimeter on offense for Rumson's army of mad bombers, led by Sourlis and junior guard Jack Solano. Sourlis leads the Shore Conference in made 3-pointers with Solano not far behind in the top five.
"He's our DeAndre Jordan,'' Champeau said. "Except without the terrible free throws."
Offensively he showed some rust on Saturday as he tries to regain his explosiveness off the floor.
"There's moments when I think about my knee, but if the brace wasn't so annoying I would be fine,'' he said.
There also was a moment that had everyone in purple and white holding their breath when he appeared to have a breakaway with the Bulldogs leading by 20 points late in the fourth quarter. An RBC player bear-hugged him to the floor and was called for a technical foul, but McAllister emerged unharmed.
"He knew I was going to try to dunk and I expected him to foul me, but I didn't
expect him to try to tackle me,'' he said. "It is what is. I knew he didn't mean any harm. I just go out and play."
During his seven-month absence, it's clear McAllister not only built himself up physically , but also mentally.
"I'm playing the hand I was dealt right now, and I'm living life to the fullest,'' he said. "I'm excited to get back."