QUINCY -- The purpose of the flexible metal brace strapped to Dalton Hoover's left knee is to provide stability and support.
It can't inject the confidence needed to play through pain.
Hoover discovered that had to come from within.
A little more than a year ago, just three games into his senior season with the Quincy University men's basketball team, Hoover suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury during a practice drill. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus and suffered cartilage damage.
"I thought, ĎAm I ever going to be able to play again? If I am able to play again, will I be able to be myself?'" Hoover said. "I didn't know if I'd ever get to the point where I'm confident enough to say it's fine. It is kind of scary or frightening."
Step by step -- literally at times -- the fear subsided.
By October, 10 months after undergoing surgery and through a rigorous rehabilitation program, Hoover was running up and down the court. By November, he was cleared for full contact during practice. By December, he had discovered the knee could withstand the pounding that comes with the physical play inside the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
And now, he's forged a role as part of what is considered the most formidable frontcourt in the league.
Quincy (13-1) jumps back into GLVC play at McKendree on Thursday night, and the 6-foot-7 Hoover is expected to play 15 or 20 minutes off the bench the way he has all season. That's the perfect amount for someone who deals with lingering aches and pains everyday but is vital to the ongoing success of a team receiving votes in the NCAA Division II national poll.
"I'm not as quick, not as agile as I used to be," Hoover said. "I had to adapt and adjust my game to fit that new identity of myself."
Accepting that might have been Hoover's biggest challenge.
A first-team all-state selection at Pittsfield, Hoover was considered one of the gems of QU coach Marty Bell's 2012 recruiting class. In his first three seasons at QU, Hoover averaged 8.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, starting 67 of the 82 games he played. His 44 blocked shots as a junior were the most in a single season since Joel Box had 68 in the 2006-07 season.
The injury took away some of the lift and quickness needed to be a shot blocker. He has just three this season.
However, adapting to his limitations has made him a more knowledgeable scorer around the basket. Hoover is averaging 7.1 points while shooting 59.1 percent from the field. He continues to show his range as well, having made 4 of 6 3-pointers.
It's all part of being the new Hoover.
"I didn't know what I was going to be like as a player," Hoover said. "I had to see how the knee would respond."
That was an unknown until he had the chance to go up and down the floor a few times.
"Day by day, confidence just built as I started doing things I used to do," he said.
It made him appreciate the decision to return.
Hoover finished his bachelor's degree last spring and could have opted to pursue his graduate studies somewhere else. Instead, he enrolled in graduate classes at QU and returned for his fifth and final season with the Hawks.
"Between all the aches and pains I have to deal with on a daily basis, being able to come into this gym every day with this team and enjoy the success we've had to so far, I don't regret it one bit," Hoover said.
QU coach Marty Bell appreciates the opportunity Hoover has to walk away standing tall, not sitting on the end of the bench hobbled by injury.
"He gets to end it on his own terms," Bell said. "You want that for a player who puts in the effort Hoover always has. His determination and commitment is something for all of our guys to learn from."
Even where there's burst of pain in his knee, something he said occurs on a daily basis, Hoover refuses to give in.
"When I'm in game mode, I don't think about it," Hoover said. "I just go out there and move normally. That was my turning point, to get over that hump from being out there and thinking about it all the time and taking my mind off the game to thinking about the game and taking my mind off my knees."
It's allowing him to enjoy what has been the best season of his career.
"It's really hard on a day-to-day basis with the aches and pains, but the fun that I'm having and the memories we are making this year definitely are worth it," Hoover said.