HELENA — Mallory Arbizzani’s body hasn’t played nicely this season.
The Carroll College senior volleyball player injured her ankle early in the season and has been hampered during the year. Now, as the Saints hope to make a run through the Frontier Conference Volleyball Tournament that begins Friday, she’s managing the pain and the Saints are gelling.
At the Butte Invitational in September, Arbizzani anticipated her setter coming one way, and her teammate moved the other. Arbizzani jumped and landed with her foot falling and rolling off her teammate’s, straining tendons in the foot.
The crash to the floor kept her out of play for week and then put her in a boot. As the team traveled to Nebraska, Arbizzani returned to the court and twisted the same foot again. That meant more healing and wearing the boot during everyday activities. She could still play, but she needed the aid of the boot to move around otherwise.
This rhythm – playing and coddling the foot – took its toll on her hips, shifting them out of place. The 6-foot-3 middle hitter couldn’t catch a break. With her hips misaligned, her back absorbed of the shock from jumping. The back pain created a noticeable change in her game.
Arbizzani and coach Moe Boyle thought she had healed later in the season when the player had a particularly sharp practice. A chiropractor had reset her hips that day, providing temporary relief and mobility, but not correcting the problem.
“I can move!” Arbizzani remembers thinking.
It’s just the way this season will go for Arbizzani, playing with some back pain, though she vows it is minor now.
“I don’t have much pain except when I’m sitting,” she said. “The impact of jumping and landing over and over… That’s when it starts to get sore. By the end of the match, I’m feeling it.”
It’s rare to find a silver lining in an injury, but Arbizzani and the Saints have. It’s brought Arbizzani’s uncle, Dustin Schopfer, to the bench. Arbizzani wore a boot during one of the team’s games after her first spill and she invited Schopher to sit by her. The Saints won that game, and the ever-superstitious Boyle said “now he has to be here at all our games.”
“He’s our little good luck charm,” Arbizzani said.
If you look, you’ll see Schopfer, 46, among the Carroll College coaches on the bench. He’s a charming special-needs fellow. He also believes he’s the Saints biggest fan. While his niece stands quite a bit taller than him, Schopher, though a bit shy around new faces, certainly knows how to don the purple and gold.
A pair of purple, gold and white Van’s were custom-made by the team’s manager for Schopfer. On the back of them reads “Super” on the left heel and “Fan” on the right. Schopher wears those and other Saints garb on most days.
More than a good luck charm, Schopher has inspired Arbizzani to pursue her major at Carroll College: elementary education with a minor in special education. She wants to teach special ed in Helena after graduation.
“He’s the main reason I want to do it,” Arbizzani said. “I feel like a lot of kids in that field don’t get the attention they deserve because so many people are hesitant in teaching. I’m not afraid.”
When Arbizzani is on the court, she plays with a fiery passion. Screaming and yelling in jubilation when the Saints flow, she’s arguably the loudest Saint on the court. Away from the game, and especially when her and Schopher josh each other, Arbizzani shows her lighter side.
“She’s extremely kind and soft hearted person,” Boyle said. “She’s really, really sarcastic sometimes. She’s funny. She’s got a great sense of humor.”
Boyle has seen Arbizzani grow from the walk-on out of Billings Skyview into a starter for the Saints. She’s also taught Arbizzani in the classroom and seen her perfectionist tendencies carryover from the court.
“I know she had a ton of potential,” Boyle said of Arbizzani coming to Carroll. “She was capable of getting to where she could be a dominant force at the net. When she first came in, being extremely raw in the front row, she didn’t hit the ball very much. She threw it and pushed it and tipped it. In this league you can’t get by with that.”
Arbizzani worked to become a powerful middle hitter, transforming into one of the biggest forces this season. Entering the conference tournament, Arbizzani has a .244 hitting percentage, with 104 kills and 42 blocks. As she’s put together a strong season, she’s done so with her family in tow.
Arbizzani and her family, including Schopher, relocated from Billings to Helena. Arbizzani’s older brother Chandler plays football for the Saints. Their older brother, Corbin, graduated from Carroll with a degree in biology and is pursuing medical school. The Arbizzanis all attending Carroll means Schopher hangs with the football team and the volleyball team.
“He likes interrupting film sessions,” Arbizzani joked.
Just as Schopher enjoys being close with his nephew and niece and the Saints, the Carroll volleyball team had to find a way to bond to become its best self.
As the Saints took a hard look at themselves at the midpoint of the season, they realized they find a way to be comfortable with each other on the court, critiquing each other in real time as necessary. It led to six-game winning streak and a run to becoming the No. 3 team in the Frontier.
“Props to coach for making us do that,” Arbizzani said. “We didn’t think it was that. Once we started doing that. It was the relationships. You can notice it when we play now.”
Those relationships will continue to be important for the Saints. They’ve always been important for Arbizzani.