By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Her second volleyball season at the University of Virginia ended almost as soon as it began. At Memorial Gymnasium, Grace Turner tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her right knee during the Cavaliers’ third match of the 2019 campaign.
“Friday she played great,” UVA head coach Aaron Smith said. “Saturday she got hurt.”
As unfortunate as the injury was for Turner, a 6-3 outside hitter from Cincinnati, the timing turned out to be something of a blessing. Not only did Turner receive a hardship waiver for that year of eligibility––she’ll be a redshirt sophomore this coming season––but she was well along in her rehabilitation by the time concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down UVA last month.
“Right before I headed home, I actually had a doctor’s appointment, and that was my sixth-month checkup,” Turner said by phone from Cincinnati. “That’s kind of the point where I would start to get into practices and play 2 v 2 and do little drills to get me acclimated to [volleyball again].”
Dr. Stephen Brockmeier reconstructed Turner’s knee on Sept. 16, after which she spent about six weeks on crutches because of the meniscus damage. During her rehab in Charlottesville, Turner met daily with Natalie Kupperman, the athletic trainer for UVA volleyball.
Before she started her rehab, Turner said, she spoke to others who’d recovered from similar injuries.
“They said it was going to be tough, but it’s something you get through,” Turner recalled. “You have to be very patient, and I’m an impatient person, and I think that’s what’s kind of killing me the most. I just want to get back into things quickly and be able to do what I used to be able to do, but it’s a very tedious process.”
She’s experienced no major complications in her recovery, Turner said. “I’m coming back slowly but surely. It’s just kind of a waiting game to see if I make all the marks and then am cleared to progress. But it’s definitely my patience that’s been the hardest thing.”
Turner communicates regularly with Kupperman and Mel Willison, UVA’s strength coach for volleyball, as well as with Smith and his assistants. They monitor her progress remotely, and “then I’ll check back in like once a week to tell them how I’m feeling,” Turner said.
One of her teammates, Christine Jarman, is also recovering from knee surgery, Smith said, though hers wasn’t as serious as Turner’s.
“Structurally, she’s fine,” Smith said of Jarman, a rising senior. “It’s just trying to eliminate the pain that she was having.”
Turner is at home with her younger brother and their parents. (An older brother is in Columbus, Ohio.) Her father has built up a large collection of weights over the year, “so I’m putting it to use now,” Turner said.
Squats and dead lifts help her strengthen the tendons and ligaments in her leg, Turner said. “I’m pretty much doing everything that the rest of the team is doing. I’m just slowly working back into it.”
Turner runs sprints in the family’s driveway, and she’ll go through volleyball drills with her brother and, sometimes, their mother.
A graduate of McNicholas High, a coed Catholic school in Cincinnati, Turner ranked third in kills at UVA as a freshman in 2018, and she appeared poised for a standout sophomore season. In the Wahoos’ 2019 opener, a win over Furman, Turner recorded a career-high 21 kills. Twenty-hours later, her season was over.
For the team, the loss of Turner was huge, Smith said. “She had a lot of ups and downs [in 2018], but you could tell it was there: the skill and the work ethic. In spring , she unloaded on people. She was arguably the best player in the gym the majority of days. She has such a great work ethic. She’s a team-first player that can put the load on her shoulders and handle the pressure and do everything you want out of a player.”
Turner said she’s used her setback “as a learning lesson. I always think that when I get injured, it’s a time for me to step back and analyze. Have I done my part? Have I done my job? I would love to have played that season, but I definitely don’t think it’s a loss for me, just because I didn’t know my team as well as I thought that I did. And I didn’t realize that I had the whole UVA community surrounding me and helping me. I had random athletes come and help and ask if they could carry something or if I needed a ride. I hadn’t really talked to them.
“It would have been great to play, but I think I [grew from] just sitting back and watching, because there’s a lot of things I had to learn, and I can definitely say that I’ve taken those things and put them into a new perspective. I think the time out was just a big lesson.”
Injuries derailed the Hoos in 2019. After defeating Virginia Tech at Mem Gym on Sept. 27, UVA was 9-6 overall and 1-1 in the ACC. By mid-November, however, Virginia had lost four players for the season: Turner, Kelsey Miller, Jayna Francis and Maddie Boylston. A fifth Cavalier, Jennifer Wineholt, missed about six weeks during the season with a concussion.
Even so, UVA won four of its last seven matches, including the finale, a 3-0 victory over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
“I think that there’s a lot of momentum going into next season,” Turner said.
Before the University switched to online classes this semester, the Cavaliers trained for about six weeks, Smith said. “We were able to develop enough to know that the optimism after ending last season on a good note [was justified].”
Getting Turner back will almost be like “adding a transfer that has been part of our program for two years,” Smith said. “You’re bringing in this all-conference-caliber player and expecting her to make good contributions, but she’s familiar with our culture, she’s a leader within the team, she’s the person that people follow because of how hard she works and because of the time that she puts in to improving herself.”
The team meets twice a week on Zoom, and the players occasionally talk on Zoom without the coaches. The challenges brought about by the pandemic have strengthened the Cavaliers’ bonds, Turner said.
“We’re constantly texting each other, asking for help, seeing if everyone’s doing all right, checking in on their families,” she said. ‘It’s important to make sure that our teammates [are fine], but it’s also just as important to make sure that their families are doing all right. I think our tight-knit community is definitely benefiting from this now, just because we’re so aware of one another.”
Turner, a sociology major, said it’s strange to be at home taking online classes, “but as a student-athlete, you only get so much time out of the year to come home and be with your family, so I’m definitely not taking this time for granted.
“It’s weird not being able to see your friends when you’re home or go and do your favorite things, but I think that you can use this time to your advantage. I’ve spent a lot of time watching movies with my family and helping around the house. So I think this is making up for all the time that we lose while being at school training.”