Cassidy Rowe is one of the most talented players across the Bluegrass State, but you might not have heard her name in a while.
A 5-foot-6 class of 2022 point guard for Shelby Valley High School, Rowe has endured more heartbreak during the last few seasons of her high school run than most will throughout an entire athletic career. Two separate ACL injuries–the first to the right knee and the second to the left–were separated by her freshman and sophomore seasons. While it didn’t prevent the then-head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, Matthew Mitchell, from extending Rowe an offer–which she ultimately accepted–it did put a pause on her development.
Entering the 2020-21 season as a junior, Rowe was finally feeling 100 percent for the first time as a high-schooler. Playing just six contests as a freshman and 19 as a sophomore with no back-to-back games allowed–all while wearing two knee braces–she was teetering around the 75 percent threshold, but a healthy offseason this past summer had her back on top of her game.
That was until a series of rib injuries forced her back on the mend right as the postseason came around. But let’s go back to the start of the year.
Rowe had been excelling on the floor for a Shelby Valley squad that was severely lacking experience. Seven of the roster’s 15 players were 7th and 8th graders with just one senior to balance out the youth. The Lady Kats got off to a 5-3 start at the beginning of the season that included a win over Pikeville, who would eventually make the Sweet 16, and a pair of losses to the same Pikeville squad and another Sweet 16 member, Bethlehem. Rowe and her squad won the 15th Region All “A” Classic during this stretch, as well.
Shelby Valley and head coach Lonnie Rowe, Cassidy’s father, were in good shape, all things considered. The majority of the production was coming from the handful of upper-class players and an impressive win over a future state tournament team had the Lady Kats in an early groove. Rowe was averaging 14 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting overall and 43.2 percent from beyond the arc through those opening eight matches. Then COVID-19 infiltrated the locker room.
Coach Lonnie Rowe made the difficult decision to shut down his team for at over a week and Shelby Valley canceled six of its next seven outings. Various minor injuries to key pieces of the Lady Kats complicated matters further. Even with a healthy Rowe, the momentum was slipping following the extended COVID-19 break. Shelby Valley would manage to improve its record to 11-5 but ran into a brutal stretch to end the season.
Shelby Valley faced Pikeville two more times, dropping both with the second of them coming in the 59th District Championship, and also went head-to-head against South Laurel–who made the Sweet 16, as well–in a game that ended in another loss. To make matters even worse, a once healthy Rowe was subjected to another poorly timed injury.
She initially cracked her rib a couple of weeks out from the postseason and was forced to sit out a few games as a result. Rowe would return during the 59th District Championship game, but played anything like she had been the previous few months. Simple things such as shooting the ball or deflecting a pass made her wince, but there was no way she wasn’t going to play in a title game. Unfortunately, the situation escalated when a freak accident occurred during the district title that led to the same rib being cracked again.
“I’ve been so worried about not hurting my knees I forgot that I could actually hurt other stuff,” Cassidy Rowe told KSR. “When they told me [the rib cracked], I just automatically broke down.
“I was feeling really good up until then. I didn’t have any problem with any of my legs for the first time in I couldn’t tell you how long.”
But a cracked rib is nothing compared to the grueling rehab process of two ACL tears. Rowe has already returned to the weight room as of last week and is in the process of trying to get back to 100 percent for the umpteenth time as a high school athlete. The pain of this injury wasn’t as severe as the previous ones, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting any less.
“It hurt because I was 100 percent, and I didn’t get to finish the season 100 percent because of some freak accident,” Rowe added.
Coach Mitchell actually offered Rowe a scholarship shortly after her first ACL tear when she was a high school freshman, and she’s remained committed to the ‘Cats ever since. She’s done this despite growing up a Louisville Cardinals fan. Even when Mitchell announced his retirement and Kyra Elzy was thrust into the head coach position, Rowe never once contemplated backing out of her decision.
“There wasn’t even a thought in my head that made me think I want to look in a different direction,” Rowe explained to KSR. “I’m with Kentucky, I’m all in, and I’m just looking forward to being a Wildcat. As long as they’ll have me, I’m gonna be there.”
The shock of Mitchell’s retirement didn’t seem to deter Rowe, considering Coach Elzy was the person she first connected with and developed a relationship with the most during the recruitment process. It was more so a sense of relief for Rowe and her family, but her father/head coach admittedly had some concerns creep in shortly after Mitchell stepped down.
“It kind of worried us at first,” Lonnie Rowe said to KSR. “We didn’t know exactly which direction [Athletic Director Mitch] Barnhart was gonna go. We had a really good relationship with Coach Elzy because she was the main recruiter, so it sort of relieved us when they said Coach Elzy was the interim, and then when she became the official coach, we were very relieved. That took a lot of pressure off of Cassidy and that’s what we told Coach Elzy, that we were excited. We think [Coach Elzy] is going to do a phenomenal job–I can’t imagine what she went through this year.”
Kentucky’s AD, Mitch Barnhart, wasted no time stripping Elzy of the interim tag, naming her the official head coach back in December to the tune of a six-year deal. The decision by Barnhart put Cassidy in an easy situation. Kentucky was still where she wanted to be and was she was familiar with the change in staff. Back when she initially committed in 2018, a few SEC schools reached out to gauge her commitment status, but she’s stayed firm with the ‘Cats.
“I actually got a phone call when I was in the car and [Assistant] Coach [Niya] Butts called me and said that Coach Mitchell was stepping down,” Rowe explained. “And I was heartbroken because he’s been such a life changer for me. He was the one who saw potential in me and decided to give me a shot. It was heartbreaking.
“But I love Coach Elzy. I was really excited to hear she would be filling in his spot because she was the one I was talking with the most on the phone–I built a good relationship with her. They let me know that my scholarship was safe and that they’re looking forward to me being there. And that reassurance, with everything they were going through there, reassured me that I’m good. It was a blessing, honestly, because they’ve always been so good to me.”
The Rowe family recently participated in a Zoom conversation with Coach Elzy and fellow members of the UK coaching staff last week. They discussed the future scholarship situation and how Cassidy would fit into future plans, who’s staying and who’s leaving, typical recruitment speak.
Due to COVID-19, all current NCAA student-athletes received a free year of eligibility, which will play a significant role in constructing future rosters across the country. Kentucky will have four seniors next season who could all theoretically come back for a fifth season. As of right now, only Rhyne Howard should be fully expected to leave following her senior season, as she is widely viewed as a future No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. The ‘Cats should not be short on depth over the coming years.
Cassidy and her father have already begun to envision what her role might look like once she does get to campus. The two would regularly watch Kentucky games from the 2020-21 run, pretending that Cassidy was shadowing the movement of senior point guard Chasity Patterson, who recently declared for the WNBA Draft after one-and-a-half impressive seasons with the ‘Cats.
Like Patterson, Rowe is an undersized point guard, but one who makes up for it in other areas. Patterson did it through her tenacious defense while Rowe does it through elite vision. Rowe said watching Patterson on defense has inspired her to improve on that end herself. The high school junior is already one of the state’s top outside shooters and a premier floor general on offense.
“I think my passing and court vision,” Rowe said about her best on-court abilities. “With the injuries, my shot took a while to get back. I couldn’t jump as high and that really helped my passing ability just because the stuff I couldn’t do, I replaced it with the stuff I could do, which was seeing people on the floor and that’s something I’ve really taken pride in since I was a little girl–finding people on the open floor and making the hard passes that will get people open.”
A distributor by nature, Rowe’s words should be music to a shooter’s ear. Someone who enjoys getting others involved typically doesn’t have much issue with creating fluid chemistry amongst her teammates.
Plus, she already has a connection with Blair Green and Erin Toller, two other Kentucky natives currently on the Wildcat roster. The Rowe family has known the Green family for years while Cassidy and Erin Toller were able to share a common experience that quickly formed a bond between the two: multiple ACL injuries. Rowe and Toller even played against each other all the way back in the fourth grade and have stayed in touch ever since.
Rowe and Shelby Valley will be in a much better position heading into her senior season. Without the adverse effects of COVID-19, the Lady Kats should be able to maintain continuity throughout a team that was incredibly young last year and had the chance to grow during the process while showing plenty of promise along the way.
She has plenty of goals already set for 2021-22: making it to Rupp Arena for the Sweet 16, winning the All “A” State Tournament, and collecting Miss Basketball honors in 2022. Before her two ACL injuries, those accolades were thought to be a given, but two years of battling back from significant wounds have some around the state questioning her abilities, despite being heralded as a Kentucky commit.
“Ever since I got hurt there’s definitely people that’s been doubting me and saying ‘how are you still going to Kentucky?‘,” Rowe added. “I just know that the hard work will pay off even if I have little injuries like a cracked rib that will slow me down. I know that Kentucky is going to see how hard I work. My senior year, I’m really looking forward to it. If I got that much stronger [in my junior year] to be able to play the way I did before I got hurt, I can get that much stronger and everyone will begin to see. I know everybody kind of forgot about me for a little while but I’m going to put my name back up there.”
Rowe is far from being a finished product on the court, too. Multiple ACL injuries are sure to slow the development of even the world’s top basketball talents. Her junior season was just a snippet of what could be to come next year when she’s fully healthy in a non-COVID world and surrounded by a more experienced group of teammates. Even with the bad breaks, Rowe recently hit the 1,000 point mark for her career back in February.
“I think she does have an extra gear she can hit,” her father and head coach, Lonnie, said. “She started out really good this season, we won the [15th Region] All ‘A’ and in the final game she had 28. But shortly after that teams started to realize we don’t have a lot of ball handlers, so they started focusing on her a lot more–taking the ball out of her hands, making her give it up early, chasing her. I think she saw then, ‘I gotta take my game to the next level’ and she’s bound and determine to do that.”
As the only native of Kentucky in high school planning on playing for the home state ‘Cats at this moment, it’s no wonder Rowe has a bit of a target on her back. But she’s tremendously loyal, almost to a fault, and wants to win with Shelby Valley and the girls she’s been surrounded by growing up. A coaching change at Kentucky wasn’t going to deter her from changing up her plan, either.
“Loyalty is not something you find in a lot of kids, but you’ll find it in Kassidy,” Her father said.