SAN ANTONIO — For Audry Hornaday, mid-September marked an important milestone in what has been a long, bumpy journey back to the court.

The 5-foot-8 Sharyland Pioneer senior forward and one of the Rio Grande Valley’s brightest high school hoops stars, Hornaday battled to overcome a season-ending knee injury and the novel coronavirus pandemic to make her comeback.

A week ago, she officially made her return to competitive basketball, playing with several Pioneer teammates on the Supremacy Basketball travel squad at a weekend tournament in San Antonio, where Hornaday picked up right where she left off 12 months after sustaining her injury.

“It felt like a breath of fresh air. For so long I had to sit back and sit back and sit back and watch. I finally got to be on that court and not just watch my teammates play (basketball), but play with them. I was so happy,” Hornaday said. “I hadn’t played with those girls in over a year because our season ended in February of my sophomore year and then I didn’t play at all through my junior year. And now it’s the beginning part of my senior year and it feels awesome, but it felt like I never stepped off the court and I felt so comfortable playing with them.”

“I had chills running up and down my spine because I was able to watch the Audry (Hornaday) that stepped off the court her sophomore year who worked so hard,” said Sharyland Pioneer girls head basketball coach Nicole Villarreal, who took in Hornaday’s comeback live in San Antonio. “I was filled with pride and excited for her because I know it’s something she’s wanted. She wasn’t going to let this define her.”

Sharyland Pioneer’s Audry Hornaday listens to head coach Nicole Villarreal at practice at Sharyland Pioneer High School Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Mission.

In September 2019, Hornaday tore an ACL which doctors said would necessitate at least six months of physical therapy, eliminating any chance of competing alongside her high school teammates as a junior.

Those problems were compounded further when her knee rehab reached its end, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the RGV and the world at large.

“I had to wait about a month or two more until I could finally start training again, and once I got to that point in my recovery, COVID happened. We went into that lockdown, that quarantine for a while, so I wasn’t able to get to the gym and train. I had to wait even longer. I was really looking forward to finally being able to train again and start getting into the rhythm of it again, but then I wasn’t able to and I had to wait,” Hornaday said.

“It gave me a lot of time to work on myself at home, so every day I was waking up and riding my bike 5 miles a day, I was running and I was doing my agility workouts so as soon as I had the opportunity to get back in the gym, I was ready.”

When she was sidelined her junior season, Hornaday used that as an opportunity to soak up basketball knowledge like a sponge.

Hornaday — who won The Monitor and District 31-5A’s Newcomer of the Year awards as a freshman and the district’s MVP award the following year — helped lead Sharyland Pioneer to a 13-1 district mark, a district title and Class 5A all-state honors from the Texas Girls Coaches Association (TGCA) as a sophomore.

In 71 career appearances for the Diamondbacks, Hornaday averaged 11.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 4.5 steals per game. On paper, Pioneer appeared poised to take a big loss with her injury, but Villarreal had other plans for her young star player.

“She went down physically, but mentally that kid was so tough. … We did have to reevaluate her role because we didn’t want her to think that she would just sit there,” Villarreal said. “She still ran the offense, but she ran it from the bench. In practice, she would be out there running the offense like she would while someone else was running the ball.”

Hornaday, who was the Diamondbacks defacto offensive player-coach on the floor before her injury, effectively became the team’s sideline offensive coordinator, helping Pioneer finish with a 14-0 record in district play, a second consecutive district crown and a trip to the area round of the Class 5A state playoffs.

“It felt like I never left. It felt like I never fell down because my teammates and my coaches never let me fall and they always kept me standing up and involved. They never let me feel like I wasn’t part of the team, even though I wasn’t on the court,” she said. “My coaches trusted me enough to give me a role on the bench, they let me run the offense and the girls, my teammates, they trusted me. They have no idea how much that helped.”

Sharyland Pioneer’s Audry Hornaday at practice at Sharyland Pioneer High School Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Mission.

Hornaday said her crash course season as an assistant coach has helped her court vision tremendously, both offensively and defensively.

Ever since her junior season ended and the COVID-19 pandemic began, however, Hornaday has yearned to return to some degree of normalcy.

“Sometimes during the school day it’s hard to remain focused, but I know as soon as I’m done with classes, I’m going to go straight to the gym. I’m going to go see some of my teammates,” she said. “Even during the COVID time, I always had my teammates to talk to and even during the recovery process. I always had my teammates to talk to and coaches and my teachers who were always very understanding, and my best friend, my rock. She really helped me and so did my mom. My mom kept me together.

“It almost feels like everything is back to normal.”

With her knee injury in the rearview mirror and the pandemic raging on, Hornaday has found solace again on the basketball court. Rather than worrying about what tomorrow may bring, she’s instead chosen to appreciate every day she has on the court as if it could be her last.

“For pretty much my entire life, I was playing basketball,” Hornaday said. “Every day was basketball, and then it stopped. It stopped quickly, in the blink of an eye, and then I literally had to learn to walk again before I could run. Then COVID happened and I had to slow down a little, but I’m ready to run. I know once everything gets back to normal, I’ll be running again and I’m excited for that.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch