She refused to believe the tear at first, continuing to attempt to train on the leg. When it began to lose muscle, as it had after the initial injury, Bulger feared the worst. Doctors confirmed as much during testing, and the senior-to-be took a medical redshirt last season as West Virginia made a run to the NCAA tournament round of 32, losing by six points to second-seeded LSU, a team that had lambasted the Mountaineers in the season-opener by 39. As the idle mind's thoughts turned more negative, Bulger wondered if she could go through the treatments again, and would she ever be the player she was. The first question has been answered. The second will be tested throughout the next three months and into the season, one in which a West Virginia team that returns all five starters – and Bulger, who is expected to eventually again assume her starting role – is expected to make a second consecutive NCAA appearance for the first time in school history.
"I am a little nervous," Bulger said of resuming practice. "Two years away, and I forgot this feeling. I feel like I am doing rehab and forget that I am getting ready to practice. I feel old. I feel like I am coming back to play with some youngsters. I feel like I need to keep up."
Bulger showed, if anything, the time off helped her further hone a shooting touch that ranked her first in the nation last season with 3.5 three-pointers per game. In her first practice on Monday, Bulger made shot after shot from behind the arc, then stepped inside for long jumpers. Little was lost on her vertical, though the knee brace she wears has restricted her slightly. She has cut on the knee, backpedaled, slid side-to-side. What's left is the scariest part.
"There is a psychological block," said the 6-0 forward. "The knee is holding up well, and is about 90 percent. The last 10 percent will be the game situations; Falling and doing things in the game where I get up and know that I am ok. I have a lot of mental blocks right now just thinking about it."
Carey has said that Bulger will not play during the team's upcoming Australian tour, Aug. 7-17, though she will travel. The five-game trip, used as both a bonding session and tune-up for the start of preseason practices, is an opportunity for Bulger to ease into drills without the worry of preparation for an opponent. The Pittsburgh native, who was an all-Big East second-team selection and honorable mention All-American in 2006 despite missing the final 13 games, has already scored more than 1,000 career points and owns Coliseum records for points in a half (26), points in a game (38) and three-point field goals made (8) in a game.
"(The tour) will be a huge benefit," Bulger said. "I can get those psychological kinks out, get the fear out now so that in a couple months I will be ready. I want to be positive and stay strong and not do too much with it right now. I am not going to try to be at the level that I was or try to do anything that I can't do right now. I only started to cut in the last two weeks, so I want to stay consistent and stay healthy."
The 22-hour flight from the United States to Australia is expected to cause Bulger some discomfort. It is difficult, she said, to get loose, though she can't feel any minor aches when the brace is on. The hope is that, with some over-the-counter painkillers and consistent movement throughout the flight, the knee will not lock up or become too stiff. There's also another, more tactical approach.
"Get an exit row," said Bulger, who played once internationally in France during her high school career at Oakland Catholic.
"It will really help the team out, but it is also going to help her out with her confidence," forward Chakhia Cole said of Bulger's traveling with WVU. "She is a part of this team and she was missed while she was gone. She will be in the mix, be around. Everybody will respect her for it. We will know where we stand; she will know where she stands."
Said Bulger: "It's best for me not to play. There was no sense to risk it over there. We'll wait until the games start here. I will be practicing and doing everything the team does, but not playing. It will be special. I am excited to be a part of the team again. I felt too removed from it for the past two years."