WEST FARGO — This season hasn’t been easy for the West Fargo High School volleyball team. The Packers have been faced with more injuries this year than any year before.
Head coach Kelsey Gibbons has had to fiddle with her lineup, try out new rotations and put players in different positions.
Gibbons had high hopes heading into this fall. One of her top swingers, Nadia Chwialkowski, a 6-foot sophomore outside hitter, was healthy again after her freshman season was cut short by a concussion.
She didn't anticipate she would lose two key contributors to injuries this year.
The Packers (19-6, 10-5 EDC) have only played a few games this season at full strength.
Maddie Waldera, West Fargo’s third-year starting libero, has been out since she broke her wrist in the Sept. 5 match against West Fargo Sheyenne. Halle Erickson, a setter and outside hitter, has been in and out of the lineup this season due to a knee injury.
Erickson has missed five total matches this season and a handful of practices. She’s been dealing with patellar tendonitis, also known as “jumper’s knee,” which is an injury to the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone.
The injury, which has made it painful to move quickly from side to side and jump, showed its signs at a few volleyball camps this summer. Erickson’s knee issue was tolerable until midseason.
“I think it was too much stress and strain and not taking enough recovery breaks when needed that just kind of made it a little worse,” Erickson said. “So it was important to take a few weeks off before the end of the season so that I can feel great for (the postseason).
Erickson, a junior, hasn’t had any injuries that have taken her out of the game for this long before. Being absent from the starting lineup was difficult mentally for her in the beginning, she said.
“It was definitely a little bit frustrating not being able to play for a while. Volleyball is just kind of my life all the time,” she said. “And not getting to play with my best friends was definitely something that was mentally challenging, but it's taught me to be mentally strong and always stay positive to look on the bright side of things.”
In the matches Erickson has competed in this season, she's tallied more than 160 assists and 70 digs.
Past season cut short
Sophomore Nadia Chwialkowski has lived this story before. She got smoked in the head at practice last year and tried to play in the Packers next match, initially not knowing she had a concussion.
Chwialkowski made it through the junior varsity game at the Scheels volleyball invitational, but when she went in for varsity, her head pain became unbearable.
She was out for about three weeks and missed the remainder of the regular season.
Her first time back playing again was in the last set of West Fargo’s final game at state. Though excited to be back on the court, it was also a tad worrisome, Chwialkowski said.
“It was good to be back, but it was also kind of scary,” she said. “Because there's that fear of, ‘What if I get hit? What if something happens? Like it could happen again.'”
Chwialkowski, who has been playing volleyball for as long as she can remember, was eagerly awaiting to get back in the lineup.
“It's really frustrating when you're hurt and you can't play a sport you love and have worked so hard at,” Chwialkowski said. “Especially because I was playing varsity at the time — I was in the rotation — so it was really hard to just sit there and watch. I couldn’t go to practices sometimes because I had just a headache, so I'd go home. And it was hard at games because it was so loud.”
The sophomore outside hitter has had a strong return, recording at least 143 kills in West Fargo’s first 25 games this season.
Filling new roles
The Packers have had to overcome bumps due to injury for a large stretch of this season. And it's been difficult on both the players and the coaches.
“It's awful — it's hard to see your kids go through injuries at anytime,” Gibbons said. “All athletes want to compete and feel good while doing it and I think injuries can sometimes be hard to deal with at this age ... hard for kids to go through.”
With a couple key contributors unable to play at some points due to injuries, Gibbons has had to continually find ways for her team to be successful.
“It's getting your other kids ready and confident and better to fill the role of their teammate. I'd say this year, our kids have done that very, very well," Gibbons said. "We've had many kids who have had to (step up) and they've gotten so much better as individual contributors because of that.”
She's proud of her team's performance, despite who they do and don’t have on the court. The fifth-year coach said she would rather not look back and think any of the team’s losses this season had anything to do with injuries.
“We have many talented kids and we're simply looking forward to being back at full strength soon,” Gibbons said. ”This team has a lot of fight in them, I'm very excited for the coming weeks.”
Things looking up
Waldera, West Fargo’s libero, finally returned to practice on Wednesday, Oct. 16. Gibbons said Waldera, who has missed 16 games, practiced like she didn’t miss a beat.
The team is looking forward to Waldera’s return.
“It was hard right away knowing that a teammate could have played with us, and we’ve only played with her for two games,” Chwialkowski said. “Especially because Maddie was so good. I’m glad she’s getting back into it.”
If things go as planned, it’s looking like Erickson and Waldera will be back on the court around the same time to finish out the regular season and get a few matches under their belts heading into postseason.
With the Eastern Dakota Conference and state tournaments on the horizon, the team is looking forward to being back at full strength soon.
And Chwialkowski and Erickson think their team can go far.
“We just have to keep working hard at practice and during games, and know that nothing's going to come easy,” Chwialkowski said.
The EDC volleyball tournament opens with play-in matches Nov. 8 and 9. The conference championship will be played at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16, at Fargo South.
The Packers currently sit at third in the East Region standings.