At the end of her freshman season at Maryville College, Jesse Zabal began to have to play volleyball through pain in her right shoulder.
During her sophomore season, the pain grew worse and became continuous.
Despite repetitive rehab sessions, the shoulder only grew weaker.
Ultimately, there came a point when surgery was deemed the only way Zabal’s shoulder could, literally, be put back together. The socket was coming out of the joint due to a severely stretched auxiliary pouch on the underside of her right arm.
“Having to be on the sidelines was horrible,” said Zabal, who’ll stand in as a senior middle blocker when Maryville hosts Rhodes, Washington & Lee and the University of the Cumberlands in a regular-season ending tournament as part of homecoming this weekend.
Maryville (17-10, 10-0 Great South Athletic Conference) opens the tournament against the University of the Cumberlands on Friday at Cooper Athletic Center at 4 p.m., returning to face Washington & Lee at 6:30.
Saturday, the Scots meet Rhodes at 10 a.m.
“Having to sit through practice (last season) and not be able to do anything was tough,” Zabal said. “It was really hard to not be able to contribute in any way.”
Zabal said she broke down and cried at various points last season.
“I was upset because I felt like I wasn’t a part of the team even though the team didn’t treat me that way,” she said. “If we lost a game, I cried because I wasn’t even in there to contribute — to mess up or to do well.
“I wasn’t in there at all.”
More than 15 months after her surgery, Zabal finally stepped back onto the court sporting her No. 11 Maryville jersey on Aug. 31. Since then, she has played in all 27 matches, helping put the Scots in contention for an NCAA Division III national tournament bid.
The Scots started poorly, going 6-8 their first 14 games, well under Maryville’s normal standards. The leadership of Zabal in the middle and the dynamic play of fellow senior Jennifer Seivers at outside hitter have given the Scots what was needed to right the ship to the tune of an 11-2 record heading into the final weekend.
Zabal played well enough to be named Great South player of the week earlier this month after notching a career-high 12 kills without a hitting error in a battle against conference rival Piedmont.
“Jesse’s been a great motivational leader for us,” junior outside hitter Leah Garrett said. “She knows just when and how to pick us up and motivate us in order to make sure we get the best out of every situation.”
The Scots will look to take down a Rhodes squad (17-12) that has been nationally ranked this season, at one point ending the 18-game winning streak of perennial Old Dominion Athletic Conference powerhouse Washington & Lee University (22-5). The streak began with a win over Maryville earlier this season.
“(Since the early struggles) we started going into games with a lot more intensity, and our chemistry has just gotten better and better throughout the year,” Zabal said. “We lost to some really good teams, some nationally ranked teams, at the beginning of the year, but I think those losses have prepared us for this final stretch.”
After this weekend, the Scots will prepare for the two biggest volleyball weekends of the year. First, they will travel to LaGrange, Ga., for the Great South tournament next weekend, where they have secured the No. 1 seed.
“We just have to continue to play the way we know how to, and, in the conference tournament, if we use what we know about the other teams, the players, and their tendencies, we should have a great shot,” Zabal said.
If the Scots are able to win their fifth consecutive Great South championship, Maryville will once again earn a berth into the NCAA national tournament.
As the Scots enter the stretch, Zabal should prove to be a healthy shoulder to lean on.