It was what Ashlee Jaworsky knew as much as what she didn’t that made her senior volleyball season at Cox High School so frustrating.
She knew she was good. She is a two-time all-conference player with Division II college talent who started as a freshman. She knew she could have helped her teammates. Instead she watched them lose in November to Kellam in the Coastal Conference semifinals.
And yet she did not know what was causing the pain in her neck. The injury, whatever it was, had forced her out of the first game of the season in late August and didn’t let her return all year.
“It’s very frustrating,” Ashlee said. “We tried everything that we did two years ago.”
That’s the other thing. She has felt something like this before — a sharp strike of pain down the spine anytime she looks up or turns her head — but when it happened two years ago, a few trips to the chiropractor and rest made the pain go away and she was back on the court a couple of weeks later.
This time she has tried electronic stimulation, massage, ice, heat, traction, trigger point injections, physical therapy and rest. She has seen multiple doctors over the past three months. All of them think the issue is soft-tissue related, rather than something structural that needs surgery. An MRI came back clear, showing no bone or disc fractures.
The time spent searching for a solution was not entirely fruitless, however. Not for Ashlee the volleyball player.
It took about a month for Ashlee to get over the idea of not suiting up.
She attended every practice and every game, providing another set of eyes and ears for coach Jason Zuidema.
Ashlee began seeing things from the sidelines that she never did on the court. She watched and listened to Zuidema critique the team’s game. She took film review sessions more seriously. She noticed aspects of her play that she had overlooked before.
“I learned to just listen,” Ashlee said. “Listen to what other people have to say because most of the time you don’t know exactly what’s happening. I started to see stuff that Jason would tell me I was doing. Maybe I wouldn’t believe it, and after watching it, you see he was right.”
Zuidema would harp on the team’s lack of emotion during critical moments on the court. After watching her teammates during lulls, she got it: Energy is crucial in this sport.
“Volleyball is a mental game,” she said. “You have to motivate everyone, get excited, and loud, and just have fun.”
Ashlee has committed to play volleyball next year at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She is hopeful a new treatment she tried recently on her neck will work, and that she will be back on the court during her indoor club season with the Beach Elite 18s this winter.
The latest procedure is prolotherapy (short for proliferative therapy), which attempts to stimulate the body’s self-healing powers by injecting natural substances into the site of an injury. The idea is to cause new ligaments and tissues to grow and stabilize the painful joint and connective tissue.
Ashlee underwent her first of as many as three treatments on Nov. 20. The process results in a few days of pain and tight neck muscles, like “a really, really bad stiff neck,” she said.
The past three months and counting without volleyball have been the longest stretch that Ashlee has gone without playing the sport since she picked it up as a 12-year-old. When she returns, she said, she’ll have to take it slow and relearn some fundamentals.
Mentally, the biggest challenge might be trying to block out the thought of another injury.
Until she can start playing again, she has been hitting the rec center twice a week, lifting weights and running to stay in shape.
In recent weeks, Ashlee couldn’t help but picture herself back in uniform. She’s been analyzing her past play, making mental notes of what to fix.
“I’ve caught myself just sitting in my bed on YouTube watching my highlight videos,” she said with a laugh. “Making myself sad again wishing I could be back out there.”
“It feels like home being on the court.”