Through injury and a pandemic, Willard still cherishes volleyball

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It’s a Friday evening in the Morrow Field House, and the Slippery Rock women’s volleyball team is taking the court for a match. The squad, including Jalyn Willard, the team Libero, was anticipating a win. After an intense five-set match, they lost the game and Willard could no longer lift her shoulder without immense pain.

That Friday would be her last match played since October 2019, and any hope of playing the remainder of her junior year was gone. Throughout her injury, Willard remained hopeful that following the diagnosis of her injury, she would still have a senior season.

After seeing a lot of doctors and receiving multiple opinions, Willard knew she would eventually need surgery to repair her injury. A couple of months without playing had passed and there was still no direct answer on the diagnosis of the injury. Many doctors suspected a torn labrum, and after eight weeks of rehabilitation, Willard was still in excruciating pain and had lost strength.

On Feb. 11, it was finally time to get surgery in an attempt to fix her left shoulder. What surgeons suspected to be a torn labrum was actually extensive nerve damage that put Willard in a sling, followed by physical therapy. Fast forward to April, the end of the season was approaching, and Willard finally got the clearance she needed to return to the court.

Once that was said and done, Willard was looking forward to spending her last season on the court with her team, but this all came crashing down as the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down the United States. While the team was away on vacation, SRU volleyball coach Laurie Lokash called on Zoom to give the devastating news.

Understandably, the team was confused, shocked and overwhelmingly sad that they could no longer compete in the sport that they loved. For Willard, who had just come back from an injury to finish her senior year, this was not the news she wanted to hear.

A small glimpse of hope was received in September when the squad was approved for small group practices, separating players in groups of 3.

“It is truly heartbreaking to not know if we will ever get a last game,” Willard said.

With the possibility of an eight-game season beginning in January, there is still hope as the current fall practices are wrapping up this week. As a volleyball player from age 10 to 22, Willard has learned to overcome adversity in these situations

Even if that Friday night in October was unknowingly Willard’s last game as a collegiate student athlete, she still plans to incorporate the sport in her life by helping younger volleyball players develop. In her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, there are camps that she someday plans to attend to help growing athletes.

Through all of the ups and downs, there was an underlying lesson: “Cherish the memories, the traveling, and every single moment,” Willard said. In tough times it is much easier to have a negative outlook, however, Willard remained focused on the positive side of things. The mindset Willard held was that it was all out of their control.

Being a volleyball player the past 12 years has also taught Willard how to deal with difficult relationships, whether it be with coaches or teammates. “You don’t get along with everyone in this setting, and the same can apply to a job,” said Willard.

If the opportunity for senior recognition night doesn’t come, Willard wants her coaches and teammates to know that she is thankful for everything they did for her both as an athlete and a person.

Madison Williams is a sophomore Communications & Converged Journalism Major and has a minor in sports management. Madison is a first-year member of both The Rocket and WSRU-TV news as an anchor. After graduation, Madison plans to score a job in Sports Broadcasting.

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