SCHAUMBURG – It had been so long since Caitlyn Ballard got tapped to rotate into a volleyball match that she almost didn’t know how to react Tuesday.
Six weeks to the day after the talented St. Charles East volleyball outside hitter traded in her knee pads for a walking boot and a spot on the bench, Ballard returned to her rightful place next to the pin alongside the teammates for whom she’d only been able to cheer.
Her decisive kill off a pass from setter Erienne Barry ended the first game of the third-seeded Saints’ IHSA Class 4A Schaumburg Regional semifinal against No. 14 Elk Grove, and Ballard welcomed the congratulatory hugs – those before and after East’s 25-9, 25-10 victory against the Grenadiers.
The encouraging words and warm gestures weren’t responses to Ballard’s stress fracture anymore, so it was tough to decipher which was better: the thrill of kicking a nagging injury, or getting to play on a night when Ballard wasn’t sure she’d get the call.
The win ensured Ballard can get another one. East (22-12) will face No. 5 seed Schaumburg in the regional final at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“It was so nice to get back out there and feel the energy on the court again,” said Ballard, who hadn’t played since Sept. 11 because of a stress fracture to her navicular, which helps maintain the foot’s arch. “ … I didn’t expect to go in at all, so for [East coach Jennie Kull] to say, ‘Ballard, you’re in,’ it definitely made my night. It might have made my week.”
Ballard practiced for the first time in six weeks on Sunday, but wasn’t sure when she’d appear in a match. Simply getting to Sunday’s practice had been difficult. Ballard had to defy various medical opinions on recovery time and balk at some of the proposed solutions – one doctor thought Ballard might need a bolt inserted into her foot – while biking and swimming to stay in shape.
It might not have been the way Ballard thought she’d spend her season, but she learned a few valuable lessons, not the least of which is the importance of buying new shoes.
“It was because of over-use and bad shoes,” Ballard said, laughing. “I was using shoes from last season and that wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t know.”
Ballard’s return instantly deepens an already-deep Saints team that had contributions from everyone Tuesday against the Grenadiers (18-18). Outside hitters Nicole Woods (10 kills) and Emma Johnson (four kills), middle hitter Mikalea Mosquera (four kills) and Barry (21 assists), as well as unsung performers such as junior Dana Voltolina (two kills, one block) and Carly Jimenez (one kill), all had strong performances.
“We got a lot of people involved,” Kull said. “We brought up some young kids and they played well, so that was nice. Our kids are focused. It’s a nice feeling that they have that confidence.”