There was no doubt about it: Saylor Poffenbarger was hurt.
With 5 minutes, 19 seconds left in the second quarter of a Feb. 13 home game against Smithsburg, the Middletown girls basketball star caught a pass and drove into the left side of the lane.
Knocked off-balance by a Smithsburg defender, Poffenbarger landed on the floor with a thud.
A collective gasp from the crowd quickly settled into silence as Poffenbarger rolled onto her stomach and stayed down, holding her right elbow.
Amy Poffenbarger, Saylor’s mom and the Knights’ coach, hurried over with a trainer, while Saylor’s teammates headed back to the bench.
Saylor heard the reaction as she lay on the floor, her fingers numb from the impact of the collision.
“I was so embarrassed,” she said.
The eyes of more than just Middletown fans are on Poffenbarger, 16, as she prepares to lead the Knights into the Class 2A West playoffs, a year after they fell short in the state final against River Hill. That spill against Smithsburg required a trip to the trainer’s room and an ice-pack taped to her elbow after banging her funny bone, but she returned to the game in the second half.
Saylor Poffenbarger is a nationally-known talent. She is ranked by ESPN as the No. 17 recruit in the Class of 2021, already committed to play for the University of Connecticut, which has won 11 national championships in the past 25 years. Over the summer, she averaged 7 points, 4 rebounds, and nearly 4 assists a game as a member of the gold-medal USA Under-16 women’s national team in Chile.
In July, Poffenbarger fulfilled a lifelong dream when she committed to play for the Huskies and head coach Geno Auriemma. She also became branded as “the girl who’s going to UConn” to many who watch or play against her.
She admits that, while her college choice was easy, she feels the weight of expectations when she steps on the court.
She combats that with a realistic approach, knowing she won’t play her best game every night. But she knows the pressure is only going to grow more intense — especially when she reaches Storrs, Connecticut, in a couple of years.
“When you go to UConn, you’re going to play in front of 17,000 people every night,” she said. “So the pressure I have now is nothing compared to when you get there.”
She’s seen a difference this year in opponents’ approach to playing her. They ramp up the physicality, maybe looking to make a name for themselves against her.
“They just [think], ‘OK, let’s push her around, whatever, to try to get her to score her lowest amount of points,’ just for the bragging rights of it,” Poffenbarger said. “They don’t even care if they win.”
Along with other teams’ scouting reports, she’s also the focus of fans’ attention, good and bad, with rival student sections sometimes shouting “Overrated” or other chants.
“They’ll just come directly for her,” said Middletown junior guard Caitlin Woelkers. “And I think it’s hard sometimes, because it will fluster her. But she always keeps her composure.”
Teammate Kate Pusey, a senior, has witnessed all of it. The two have played together since Pusey was in fifth grade.
“For a 16-year-old, she has so much pressure on her all the time, with people coming to watch her, and all the fans,” Pusey said. “And we just have to be there for her, and just kind of be by her side and let her know, you’re just a kid, you’re doing your best, just keep pushing.”
Poffenbarger knows that her reputation draws extra visitors to her games, to see if she lives up to the hype. But she’s been happy to find that most fans are just curious and complimentary.
The junior already has a perceptive sense of what people want and expect from her. The exposure she’s gotten from her Huskies connection and gold-medal performance brings her attention from younger fans, both boys and girls — even though they might not know what to say to her. At times, even off the court, they walk up to her and just stare.
“And I’m like, ‘Hi,’” she says. “I’m a people person, so I don’t mind it.”
They might want to show her a UConn shirt they got for Christmas. Or they might ask for a picture, an autograph, or just a shared moment.
Poffenbarger’s parents have talked with her about dealing with the opportunities and obligations her notoriety brings. Even when it’s not easy.
“Sometimes it is hard to put on that front, that face, because everybody doesn’t have a good day every day,” Amy Poffenbarger said. “And she does a really good job of understanding, I can’t be crabby when I walk out after a basketball game, win or lose. I have to come out and still talk to people and be cordial.”
Saylor enjoys the interaction. She says she wants to reciprocate the support she’s received. And when the kids gather around her after games, she sees a shadow of herself.
“I’ll go to a youth game and they’ll come up to me and be like, ‘Can I get a picture?’” she said. “And that just fills my heart, because I know that I was that little kid looking up to a high school player at our school.”
Her own worst critic
Saylor could dribble two basketballs the length of the court at almost full speed when she was 3 or 4 years old, said her father, Bill Poffenbarger. In fourth or fifth grade, she remembers begging her mom to let her play with the high school girls.
Now, Saylor’s coordination and body control help give her game a fluidity that’s unusual for a 6-foot-2 teenager.
One of the youngest in her grade, she was actually smaller than many of her middle school classmates. She played point guard and developed the ball-handling skills that are such an important part of her game.
Then, she grew five inches between seventh and eighth grade.
“And I was a baby giraffe. I fell all the time,” she said. “I would go in for a layup and just fall. I just now grew into [my body].”
Poffenbarger’s basketball skills and height help make her the center of attention anytime she’s on the court, and her college choice brings more attention in another place that isn’t as easy for her to traverse: social media.
She got a hard lesson in the power of social media when she announced she’d be joining UConn’s renowned program.
Not all of the reactions were congratulatory.
Amy Poffenbarger shakes her head about the situation. Lots of parents struggle with helping their kids navigate the challenges of adolescence online. But it’s further complicated when the kid is someone for whom a Google search turns up more than 7,000 results.
Said Amy, “It’s one of those things, we just looked at it as, hey, Saylor, this is life. This is the rest of your life, because you’re a great basketball player, you’re a beautiful young lady. You’re going to be in the public eye, whatever you choose to do. So let’s deal with this now, OK? You have to figure out what you can take and what you can’t.”
It led to some hard discussions — about how comments can hurt. But also conversations about how she doesn’t have to let them get to her.
Amy, who played college basketball at the University of Missouri, has been able to help navigate Saylor through the challenges and attention her skills bring.
Saylor likes playing for her mother, she said, although sometimes it’s hard to keep the house out of the gym and vice-versa.
“Over the last three years, we’ve definitely found that happy medium of where we can test each other,” Saylor said about the on-court relationship. “It used to be a little bit hard to do it, if we would get on each other’s nerves at practice, we would take it home.”
Amy says the friction between them can get bad. But it’s part of the closeness of their bond. Nearly 17 years of dealing with hopes, fears, doubts, and insecurities give Amy a glimpse into Saylor’s psyche that she doesn’t have with her other players.
“There are times where, if Saylor’s having an off day, I get it,” Amy said. “Maybe something happened at home, or something happened in our life that nobody knows about. And on the flip side, sometimes you can push her a little harder because I do know that she needs to be pushed harder.”
She tries to remember that she’s dealing with a daughter who has built herself into a player capable of competing on an international stage.
“Saylor’s harshest critic is herself,” her mother said. “And sometimes I forget that. And I forget to tell her how proud I am of her.”
Basketball served as an outlet for Poffenbarger when her younger brother Fordham, 4, died in an ATV accident in 2010.
“It let me forget about things outside, and I could just do what I loved to do,” she said.
Along with being the reason she wears jersey No. 4, her brother’s memory has also helped shape her academic plans for college, where she wants to major in mortuary studies. She has an internship at Stauffer’s Funeral Home in Frederick.
“Obviously, it’s not the job for everyone,” she said. “I’ve found that I can help other people, so I find that interesting. Just helping others experience something that I’ve gone through.”
This fall, Saylor watched her older brother Reese quarterback Middletown’s football team to a state title.
That championship and her team’s narrow loss in last year’s state final has led to some good-natured sibling banter.
“He will be like, ‘Where’s your ring at?’” she said. “But it’s only, obviously, sarcasm.”
Born only about 18 months apart, the two “would literally fight about everything,” she said. But they have gotten closer with age. Many of their early battles took place in a gym that Bill and Amy Poffenbarger had built on the family’s property.
“We had a rule, because of the gym, that they couldn’t come up [to the house] unless they were bleeding,” said Amy, preferring they work out their own problems.
Being raised in a competitive family fed Saylor’s inner competitiveness. Plus, “I was brought up with all boys, so I was always the girl,” she said. Saylor also has two other brothers, Brittin, 12, and Higgins, 7.
Amy Poffenbarger described a time recently when Saylor was pitted in a race against her little brother.
“And she was like, ‘I’m going to beat you.’ And I’m like, ‘Saylor, he’s 12. And he’s half your size,’” Amy said. “She’s super competitive, but it’s good.”
Poffenbarger partly credits her competitive drive for her athletic success and a desire to live up to the expectations of her critics, but she recognizes it can bleed into other parts of her life as well.
“Knock on wood, I haven’t had it hurt me,” she said. “But I can definitely tell there are some times where I’m kind of like, ‘OK, I need to calm down, we’re playing cards.’ But I definitely see it more as an advantage than a disadvantage.”
Next week, Poffenbarger will lead Middletown into the playoffs, hoping to end it with the program’s first state title since 2006. The Knights host either Williamsport or Seneca Valley in the regional semifinals. Win or lose, all eyes will be on Poffenbarger. Win or lose, she’ll leave it all on the court. Win or lose, she’ll greet her fans and her detractors with a smile, knowing all of this is what’s expected of her.