Coming back: How Erin Gardner and Morgan Copley rallied from injuries to play volleyball this season

Junior opposite hitter Morgan Copley hits the ball over the net during a Kent State volleyball game. 

Isabella Schreck Reporter

The day after surgery for her torn ACL, senior libero Erin Gardner was back in the training room.

During the practice before the Mid-American conference play began, junior opposite hitter Morgan Copley’s back hurt so much, she couldn’t go on. But within a month, she was hitting against tough competition. 

Both athletes endured painful injuries and a difficult recovery but are back on the court helping their team.

Doctors told Gardner that the average time-off from playing after surgery was nine to twelve months, but she was back on the court in seven months.

“I know it’s crazy,” Gardner said. “I truly love volleyball, and it was really hard for me to know that I would have to sit out and not have an impact.”

Last season, Gardner was injured against Bowling Green on Feb. 26.

Middle blocker Lana Strejcek went for a kill against the Falcons but her shot was blocked. Gardner ran forward to cover. 

While sliding forward, her right knee gave out. 

“It felt weird, and it really scared me more than anything,” Gardner said. “I was hopeful that it was a fluke.”

Gardner lay on the floor and motioned for the referee to stop the play. After trainers came over to help her, she slowly stood up and walked off the court. The following days she went through multiple tests, x-rays and an MRI. She was told she completely tore her ACL, which required surgery. 

As Gardner was working to get back on the court this season, junior opposite hitter Morgan Copley struggled with a back injury.

Right before the team’s first Mid-American Conference weekend against Ball State on Sept. 24, Copley experienced shooting pains in her back while jumping during practice. She experienced similar pain while playing club volleyball in high school, so she thought her back was just sore.

But the pain got worse and worse. 

“I went to our trainer and told her, ‘It’s so bad, I cannot play,’” Copley said. “She agreed that it was to the point where I couldn’t play in the game that weekend.”

Copley said the pain was caused by “excessive jumping,” which became a bigger issue after the 2021 season, which was played in spring instead of fall because of the COVID pandemic.

“My injury was just from overuse,” Copley said. “Usually we have a full spring and summer off and then we go into a season. I feel like the turnaround season really set it off.”

While the injured athletes focus on rehabilitation, coach Don Gromala also works to maintain team momentum when key players sit out. He said there is an adjustment period, but the team most importantly has empathy for their teammates. 

“Our team of young women care about each other so much,” Gromala said. “We talk to them about the injury, and there’s always a little bit of nervousness, but things settle down and everyone feels good. As a group, we trust everybody to do their jobs.”

Both women emphasized the help of athletic trainer Amy Bissell and Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Performance Bob Lemieux in getting back on the court.

“Amy and Bob were truly the backbone of this whole process,” Gardner said. “I could’ve had all the resources in the world. But without them to push me but at the same time hold me back when I pushed back on them, I wouldn’t have been able to recover.”

Bissell takes a slow process when helping athletes recover to make sure they are prepared mentally and physically for the intense environment they face each weekend. 

“I don’t take someone that was just in a boot and put them on the court the next day,” Bissell said. “I get them comfortable with their body again, comfortable with the movement and sport-like activities. I’ll start with making sure they get their full range of motion and then work on their balance and then their strength and agility.”

Gardner and Copley went from playing every set of the season to sitting on the sidelines. They still wanted to maintain a court presence from the bench. 

Even as recovery became strenuous, Copley said “I wanted to get back for my teammates.”

“Whenever I was sitting on the bench, I wanted to contribute,” Copley said. “I would try to give my team advice and be a big cheerleader.”

Copley spent every day in the training room, doing exercises to strengthen her back. She also saw a chiropractor, had cup therapy and even got a steroid shot in her back to help numb the pain. 

In about a month, Copley was back in the front row to play Ohio on Oct. 20. 

“I felt like I had fresh legs,” Copley said. “At first, I definitely had some nerves jumping super high, but at the same time I was ready.” 

Copley has played in every set but one since her return. She averages a .216 hitting percentage and has earned 132 kills and 58 blocks overall this season. 

“What she’s dealing with will be a factor until the season is over when she has significant time to rest,” Gromala said. “But she’s done a great job finding different ways to contribute offensively or making great changes to slow our opponents attacking with her blocks.”

Copley’s injury is not something that is simple to fix. Even though her pain has subsided, Copley emphasized that she continues to work with her trainers.

“It’s so important to make sure you’re doing everything possible to keep yourself healthy even though our schedules are so busy,” Copley said. “It all just comes with being an athlete. It’s so time consuming, but in the end it’s definitely worth it.”

Gardner also spent every day in the training and weight room. 

After surgery, she was able to walk but had no lateral movement in her knee. In rehab, she worked on exercises like quad extensions to get her range of motion back. 

If she would have taken the full nine months to recover, Gardner would not have played this whole season. As she worked hard and progressed, she was originally told she could be back to play Northern Illinois Oct. 29. 

But Gardner wanted to play her first match back on her home court.

“I kept pushing and pushing myself,” Gardner said. “I went to rehab five days a week for six months straight, and I lifted every day with Bob.”

By practice the week before her game against Ball State, she was feeling like herself pre-injury.

Gardner said she was ready to return to the back row. 

“Don texted me a couple hours before the game and said, ‘Welcome back, you’re going to be in the opposite colored jersey tonight,’” Gardner said. “It was a huge relief that everything I did over the summer paid off. I was extremely happy and excited.”

Gardner came back strong and ranks third in the MAC in digs, averaging 5.18 per set. 

“She’s passionate about competing and playing with this program, and it speaks volumes for the rest of her teammates,” Gromala said. “She’s doing a great job with getting contact on really hard-driven balls and controlling them while also covering so much of the court.”

Gardner will continue making plays in the libero jersey next season after the NCAA gave fall athletes another year of eligibility after seasons were shortened because of COVID.

“I’m really excited to be fortunate enough to compete for a MAC championship for a fifth year,” Gardner said. “I’m not done yet.”

The team is in seventh place in the MAC and did not qualify for the six-team MAC tournament starting Nov. 21. The Flashes play their final game of the year Wednesday against Ohio.

But season results do not change Gardner and Copley’s appreciation for the sport they have played most of their lives. From their time recovering, both women said they have become more grateful for every opportunity they get to play with their team. 

“I learned to not take anything for granted,” Gardner said. “You never know when a game might be your last, so make the most of every moment.”

Isabella Schreck is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].