There are a select few injuries in sports that every athlete can only hope they never have to experience. Breaking bones can be pretty bad, and rupturing an Achilles can end your career, but one of the more common dreaded injuries is a torn ACL. The increasingly prevalent season-ending knee injury can happen to anyone at anytime, ending a promising season or even a career in a flash.
Some players never come back from tearing their ACL. Those who do usually find it difficult to perform at the same level they did prior to the injury. Players tend to come back a little slow at first, and it usually takes some time before anyone can really say what long-term effects the injury has had on them.
Leah Sully, co-captain of the UCSB women’s volleyball team, is one of those players who didn’t play at the same level she was at before tearing her ACL. Actually, she just got better.
Sully came to UCSB as a hot recruit by former Gauchos’ Head Coach Kathy Gregory, and she did not disappoint during her freshman year. She was third on the team with 223 kills and led the entire Big West with 52 service aces. In the only NCAA tournament appearance of her college career against St. Mary’s, she posted a then-career-high 20 digs.
“Her first year she was a tremendous impact player,” Gregory said. “Her hitting was good, but that wasn’t the most important thing. She was a great all-around player. Her passing, defense and serving were what was really good.”
Unfortunately, in the first match of her sophomore season, Leah came down with the injury that ended her year just as it began.
“It was tough because I was excited to have a good season and it’s just a hard thing to cope with in the beginning,” Sully said. “Once I got over that initial hump though, I was just trying to work hard at rehab and push myself to get back as quick as I could.”
Her coach, however, looked only at the positives that she believed would come from an injury of such magnitude.
“As difficult as it is to go through an injury, there’s always a silver lining,” Gregory said. “She sat out a year and her hitting got better and better, and by the last year I coached she was the go-to hitter. She really developed her all-around game.”
While most athletes fear that knee injuries will hinder their physical abilities in a more general sense, when it comes to a sport like volleyball, players and coaches are more concerned with one thing in particular: jumping. Sully made it a point to battle her way into peak physical form before the start of the next season and prove that that would not be an issue.
“I wanted to improve my vertical,” Sully said. “That was the biggest thing, and I ended up gaining two inches when I came back to the team.”
Since coming back from her injury, Sully has led the Gauchos in total kills, digs and aces, further solidifying her reputation as an all-around player. She has earned All-Big West First Team honors, she’s placed her name all over the UCSB record books, and she will surely hit many more statistical milestones before her time is done. Despite all of these accomplishments though, there are still a few goals that have continued to elude her.
“Obviously I would like to go as far in NCAA as possible,” Sully said. “But a Big West title would be huge.”
The Gauchos had a difficult preseason this year, going 5-7, but they received some bad news before their first conference game of the season when an MRI showed that Sully had a sprained ligament in her elbow. As the team’s top outside hitter, it wasn’t a very good time for her to be forced to sit out games for the first time since her ACL tear.
As a result, Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch moved Sully to libero; a position where she could play without risking further injury, but also one which she had never before started at in college. Since that decision, UCSB has gone on a tremendous 5-1 run to start their Big West campaign, highlighted by an incredible road win over No. 9 Hawaii in which Sully had a game-high 22 digs.
“Regardless of what position she’s playing, she’s trying to win at everything,” Sully’s teammate senior opposite Katey Thompson said. “There’s always this intensity and heart to play 100 percent, to just leave it all out there.”
Thompson perhaps knows better than anybody what Sully went through while rehabilitating her ACL because she too was sidelined for the majority of the 2009 season with a knee injury.
“After she came back, her mindset completely changed, and she was more driven than ever,” Thompson said. “Her mindset is just so aggressive, she wants to win so badly and she’ll do whatever it takes and play whatever position she’s assigned to.”
During her time as a Gaucho, Sully has excelled in everything she’s been tasked with doing on the court. Since tearing her ACL, she became the team’s number one hitter, she has been a calming force on the defense whether she’s playing libero or any other position, and she’s become a true leader for her teammates both on and off the court. Not surprisingly, she can owe much of her success to the time she was forced to spend off the court.
“That knee injury was really inspirational for me because I had never had a serious injury before,” Sully said. “Just always having that in the back of my mind, every day when I come into practice there’s times when I think about it and how I couldn’t play for so long. It really makes you want to practice every day as hard as you can.”
The silver lining that Coach Gregory foresaw may just be the reason why Leah Sully has, and will continue to be one of the best women’s volleyball players that UCSB has ever been lucky to call a Gaucho.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of October 23, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Kenneth Song of The Daily Nexus.