SLAYTON -- Alyssa Groves displays a wide smile, which she flashes often. She’s a happy young woman -- happy to be a college volleyball player at a school she loves, with teammates she enjoys -- happy to have settled on a course of study that excites her, and happy that she’s come through the toughest part of an exhausting rehabilitation program that once threatened to force her to reassess her dreams.

She hasn’t played a real volleyball match since 2018.

That was when she was a junior at Murray County Central High School. In a November basketball game, she jumped up for a rebound but landed badly. She was in instant pain. She was taken out of the game and examined. The resulting knee injury wasn’t originally diagnosed as serious. But she was in pain for the next two weeks. She then had an MRI done in Sioux Falls, S.D., and discovered she had a partially torn MCL, a partially torn LCL, and a fully torn ACL.

After undergoing surgery at the end of January, she began rehabbing three days later.

“Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” she said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

By the time the next volleyball season rolled around, she hadn’t been cleared to return. So she sat out her senior season. By the time she was cleared to compete again (February 2020), the basketball season was mostly done. She missed that, too, serving instead as a manager on the boys basketball team.

Volleyball was the worst.

“I was close to my 1,000th kill. Just watching kind of made me sad,” she said.

Today she’s a freshman on the highly-competitive Division I Colorado State University volleyball squad. She was finally ready this fall to provide on-court help for a CSU team that compiled a remarkable 29-2 record in 2019, except for one problem: the 2020 fall volleyball season was canceled due to the COVID19 virus.

She was able to practice. She just wasn’t able to play. None of the Rams were.

At the family home in Slayton this week, the rangy 6-4 outside hitter smiled at the irony.

“I was coming off almost two years of not playing volleyball since club,” she recalls. “The difficulties (at college) were there. But it also gave us a chance to get to know each other.”

She adds: “The first week down there I was SO rusty.”

Groves’ odyssey, however, has had a bright side. Several bright sides, in fact. Mostly, she says, she feels good about herself having come so far through the adversity of her high school injury. She was so impressed with her therapy sessions at Orthopedic Institute Performance (OIP) in Sioux Falls, that she chose Health and Exercise Science as her major. She hopes to work after graduation in physical therapy.

Tough choices

There were, no doubt, a few Slaytonites who wondered why the town’s best offensive volleyball weapon had to sit out both volleyball and basketball in her senior year. She was a supportive volleyball teammate, however, watching games on the bench with her friends. But it was just too soon to get back out there on the court, she knew.

“I know what’s best for me, and I wasn’t going to come back if I wasn’t comfortable with my injury,” said the slender left-handed power hitter. “All my friends were, ‘Are you gonna play? Are you gonna play?’ But I knew I wasn’t ready.”

She had a good support system, starting with her parents Randy and Dawn. Friends at school, friends in the community. “They were good,” she said.

But it took a little time for some to understand. “My friends didn’t know what I was going through. My parents didn’t fully understand what I was fully going through. My PT (personal trainer) in Sioux Falls was basically the only person I could talk about it to.”

Like anyone else would, she experienced some doubts.

“Honestly, there was doubt in my mind about being able to play volleyball in college.”

But she became determined to have a positive attitude. She decided that if she could push through rehab, she could push through anything. At times, she felt as if she were taking one step forward and two steps back, but she persevered. “So I kept pushing through the grit and came out on the other side,” she explained.

Already as a high school sophomore, Groves (who won a national championship in 2018 with her Marshall club team, where she was named tournament MVP) caught the eye of college recruiters. But many colleges began to look the other way after her injury.

“But CSU, that’s when they wanted me more,” she said.

Colorado State had had success with volleyball players who’d sustained injuries like hers. Groves committed to CSU in October of her senior year.

Now with the entire Rams team redshirted due to the lost COVID-19 season, Groves continues getting in her best volleyball shape. She lost 20-to-25 pounds after her surgery, but she’s got all of that back now, plus 10 more pounds.

“I actually have some muscle on me, and it feels good,” she smiles.

She’ll be returning to Fort Collins early next month for two-a-day practices. The spring college volleyball season will start before winter ends.

She’s already learned that college is much more advanced than high school. The pace of the game is much faster, and the need to be agile is crucial. Groves has learned to improve her arm swing for form, power and follow-through.

She smiles, of course, when she thinks about how she “came out on the other side.”

“Never a day goes by where I don’t think like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. Now I know why I’m doing it.”