She's just a sophomore but there's a decided swagger to Keyla Martinez's game that belies her relative on-court inexperience.
Watching her effortlessly push the fast break after a rebound and coolly dish to a teammate under the basket for an easy bucket, it's hard to believe that last year at this time she was .
"It's just a miracle," said Keyla's mother, Luisa, of her daughter's full recovery from a cerebral hemorrhage last November.
Keyla's first six months after the incident were a flurry of medical tests, scans, surgeries and physical and occupational therapy. Doctors still don't know what caused Keyla's brain bleed, and may never know, but they've given her a completely clean bill of health.
She'll receive a precautionary MRI each of the next two summers, and perhaps one more angiogram before she ships off to college, but Luisa said Keyla's not on any medication and doctors don't anticipate any lasting physical or neurological effects.
She was cleared to return to the court in late June and has been training tenaciously to get back to form ever since.
"[Keyla] would have her days where she was off, and days where she was on," Luisa said of her daughter's return to game action this summer. "But considering what she went through...it's a miracle that she's even on the court."
'What she went through'
It all began the Monday before Thanksgiving last year when Keyla, then a Fair Lawn High School freshman, was only weeks away from embarking on what she dreamed would be a storied high school basketball career.
“We were doing just some basic running and jump roping and core work,” Fair Lawn girls basketball coach Chris Lovermi remembered of the day Keyla fell ill. “She complained of a stomach ache, which I thought was just from the workout. But it was obvious after a few minutes that it was a little bit more than that.”
When Keyla began vomiting and slurring her speech, a teammate called her parents. They rushed to the school.
"As soon as I saw Keyla, immediately I knew that something was wrong," Luisa told MSG Varsity in February. "I didn't know exactly what was, but I did know that something seriously was wrong with her."
At the hospital, doctors discovered intracranial bleeding and Keyla was placed in a medically-induced coma to reduce pressure on her brain.
She remained comatose in the intensive care unit for about 10 of the 21 days she spent at New York Presbyterian Hospital, before finally returning home on Dec. 11, 2011.
Within a week of her release from the hospital, a determined Keyla was back on the court -- as a spectator -- for the Cutters' home opener against Ramapo, which the team dedicated in her honor.
A fresh start
Today, after months of conditioning, practice and in-game play, Keyla finally feels like she's back to being the player she was before her scare.
She said she never worries that her health issues might resurface.
"It went by so fast that I feel like it never happened," Keyla said after a recent scrimmage. "I’m not afraid for it to happen again because I know what’s going to happen if it does happen again."
When the high school season tips off Friday night, she'll make her first regular season appearance as a high school varsity player. It just won't be for the Cutters.
Keyla, whose athleticism and on-court instincts lend themselves to a more up tempo style of play, transferred to Paramus Catholic this fall following a summer spent clashing with Fair Lawn's coach.
Her new coach, Al Roth, said she fits in better with his fast break-heavy offense and pressure man defense than she did in Fair Lawn's system.
Keyla, who believes playing at PC will afford her more looks from college coaches, said she already feels more at home, both on and off the court, with her new teammates.
"I’m able to open up my game here," she said after a recent Paladins scrimmage. "[At Fair Lawn] I was constrained from doing certain things."
Roth, who first took notice of Keyla a few years ago when she was a standout middle schooler at one of his clinics, said he's been impressed by her drive and basketball IQ, and expects big things from her as a sophomore.
"She’s got to pay her dues," he said, "but she’s got the moxie and she’s got the competitive attitude that we like."
Besides cementing her reputation as a fighter, Keyla said her triumph over the trials and tribulations of the past year has given her a more mature outlook and brought the Martinez family closer together.
Rather than crowded around her hospital bed this year on the eve of Thanksgiving, the family spent the night together in church.
When parishioners were asked to stand and share what they were thankful for, Luisa related Keyla's inspirational story.
"[This experience] has only made all of us stronger, closer to one another, and just so much more thankful for things like health and joy and overall love," she said. "That’s the most important thing to me."