Q2 AOW: 'Need to see it through'; Dani Zahn helping MSU Billings to remarkable season despite four ACL tears

Dani Zahn
Posted at 2:28 PM, Mar 13, 2024

BILLINGS — In five years with the Montana State Billings women's basketball program, Dani Zahn may not have led the team in a single statistical category. But she has without question proven to be the team's most resilient player.

“They call it a really bad pivot shift, so what they had to do is take my IT band ... and they pulled it over to help with more stability,” Zahn explained of a torn ACL repair before a recent practice.

Unfortunately, she knows the procedure all too well.

“Some girl came from out of nowhere, (I) tried to stop. My brain wanted to go one way … my leg went the other way,” said recalled of her first ACL injury. The pain was like a volt of electricity while playing high school ball for her Florence Falcons.

Less than a year later — deja vu.

“My second one, I actually tore on my first game back,” she said flatly.

That was Zahn's junior year, and rather than immediately repair it, Zahn played through the pain and weakness for a full season. That said, she recalls the Falcons reaching the state tournament and winning multiple games in a worn-down knee brace.

“The brace started to fall apart," she recalled. "So, I ended up having to, like, tape it on me.”

Two high school seasons; two torn ACLs. Yet Yellowjackets head coach Kevin Woodin honored his commitment to Zahn.

“Perseverance” instantly comes to mind as Woodin is asked to describe his point guard in a single word. That’s what he thought of her then and especially still does today.

As a sophomore for the Jackets, Zahn hit the ground again. This time with a third ACL tear during a game at Rocky Mountain College.

“(I) tried to stop … it pretty much just gave out," she said. "That one was really tough, because I kind of thought I was over the whole ACL thing. I thought ‘oh my God, two times, it couldn’t happen to me again.’”

Zahn admits the third tear emotionally hit her the hardest, even spiraling her into "a bit of a depression slope." By all accounts, it would've been easy to throw in the towel — even call it a career. But the Florence native was too determined to give up.

“I feel like I always kind of grew up like a fighter a little bit. That’s how my dad raised me,” she said.

So, Zahn grinded back as fiercely as ever. But only a year later in a game at Seattle Pacific, she suffered the one that scared her most. A violent, fourth ACL tear.

“One of the players low-key kind of football-dived into me and took me out right at the joint line," she said gesturing to the injury point of her left knee. "I felt sick to my stomach. I thought I was going to throw up, actually.”

Senior teammate Shayla Montague joined Zahn as incoming freshmen. Though she's watched it first hand, Montague can't imagine struggling through the pain and recovery of four ACL tears.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t think I could go through that more than twice,” she said shaking her head in amazement. "I love that her confidence has stayed the same throughout the years.”

 Even Woodin, now in his 20th season as head coach of the Yellowjackets, admits he's never seen such strength of will.

“She set a new expectation, or a new bar for me,” he said.

As Zahn recounts the four surgeries, she explains how one repair even included a cadaver replacement which still seems kind of gruesome.

"A little bit ... it's definitely interesting knowing that someone else's body part is also in my body," she said with a laugh.

Zahn now delivers critical minutes off the bench for MSUB (26-6, 16-2), which enters this week's NCAA Division II West Region Championships Friday night in Los Angeles against Chico State.

Those minutes off the bench have helped the Jackets accomplish something they hadn’t in a decade — win the regular season conference championship — while Zahn smartly and creatively adjusted her game.

“I think I play with a lot of fear, but I think I have to,” she said of the style that's allowed her to close out her senior season.

Woodin said this year's team wouldn't have come this far without her presence.

“I’m sure that maybe the contact is not quite as much but to be honest, I really can’t tell that," he said. "I think if there is a ball on that floor and we needed it to win, I think she’d be all over it."

The physical and emotional resiliency have effected a third of Zahn's life. And while reaching the other side of four ACL recoveries seemed improbable — if not impossible — at times, here she sits, dressed out for another practice with no knee brace and no regrets.

“I feel like this is kind of where I belong ... and I need to see it through,” she said.