Ropati Pitoitua's 'lucky' break

WSU DEFENSIVE LINE coach Mike Walker would be the last to categorize the loss of Ropati Pitoitua as a lucky break. "That was a tough blow, a tough one," Walker said of the sophomore defensive tackle's broken fibula, which gave way when another player fell on his lower leg during a preseason drill. But there is a silver lining, and Walker can tell you from painful personal experience why that is so.

Pitoitua, a 6-8, 300-pound sophomore from Clover Park High near Tacoma, not only had been penciled in as a starter alongside fellow sophomore Aaron Johnson, but figured prominently in an anticipated resurgence of the Cougar defense this season. After Pitoitua went down, head coach Bill Doba said the only greater loss his D could suffer would be Will Derting.

Walker, a former WSU defensive tackle now in his ninth season as a Cougar coach, can empathize with Pitoitua. Walker suffered the same injury back in September 1980 in a 35-23 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville.

But it's Pitoitua who should feel Walker's pain. Pitoitua is fortunate he's playing in a time of advanced orthopedics and strength training. "I was in a cast all the way up to my hip," Walker said. "I was in that thing for eight weeks, and then I had to rehab it for another eight weeks."

Pitoitua looks to be standing tall, and stronger than ever, when Cougs battle UCLA in Pullman on Oct. 15.

Pitoitua shed his cast more than a week ago for a specialized boot, and he'll likely kick that off soon. Walker said he expects Pitoitua to return to action in time for the UCLA game in Pullman Oct. 15.

How's he managing to do that?

Well, first, the break was clean. That should speed up the healing process, Walker said. Second, Pitoitua's been making out like Lance Armstrong on an ergometer, which is essentially a bicycle for the upper body, said Rob Oviatt, WSU's training coordinator. The workouts take the place of running until Pitoitua's leg is strong enough for contact with the ground and other players.

"His heart and lungs don't know the difference," Oviatt said.

Orthopedic advances and strength training, combined with student-athletes' desire to train year-round, have shaved weeks off the recovery time for many injuries, Oviatt said. WSU players' decision to spend summers in Pullman and work out is proving to be a critical element in the overall health of the team, both physically and mentally.

"It's a totally different landscape from when I got into this 25 years ago," he said.

In his time off the field, Pitoitua has increased his time in WSU's weight room. He's lifting four days a week. The added upper body strength should help as WSU enters the toughest part of its Pac-10 schedule with games against UCLA, Cal, USC, Arizona State and Oregon. "It's been a mixed blessing in that regard," Oviatt said.

Beyond orthopedics and other training methods, Pitoitua has another advantage.

"He's got a tremendous attitude," Oviatt said. "The biggest part of this, in dealing with any injury, is mental."

In Pitoitua's absence, senior Bryan Olson and freshman Fevaea'i Ahmu have filled in nicely. Olson, particularly, has been a big surprise, Walker said.

Ahmu showed dramatic improvement from the Idaho to the Nevada game.

"He didn't say anything, but I think he was just nervous (against Idaho)," Walker said.

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