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Many of the ways in which Jillian Stanek is currently described are in the past tense.

She was among the best college volleyball players in the Frontier Conference.

She was ranked fourth in the nation in hitting percentage.

She was having a great year.

The narrative of the 6-foot-1-inch athlete's story changed in a split second.

Her reliance on a pair of worn crutches is one clue. Her presence in the training room instead of on the gym floor is another.

“I feel like I got a year of my life stolen,” Stanek said between a set of muscle-strengthening repetitions.

Stanek, a standout middle blocker for Rocky Mountain College's Battlin' Bears, went down with a season-ending knee injury Sept. 9. The culprit: a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus.

“It's a huge injury for us,” said Coach Laurie Kelly. “She was a big-time player having a great year. It's season-ending.”

On that particular evening, the 20-year-old multisport athlete was doing something she had done hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. She was hitting the ball and came down on her left leg.

“It was a freak accident,” Kelly said. “She's strong. She did everything she was supposed to do.”

Stanek, a junior, attends RMC on a full-ride volleyball scholarship. The team is having a standout year. It is ranked second in the conference and 19th in the nation. It is the first time in a decade that RMC has been ranked.

“Our goal was to go to nationals this year,” Stanek said. “Obviously, this was the year I had the highest goals for myself. I've missed the whole season. Nobody wants to go down the first game of the season. It's hard to watch my teammates play and not be able to.”

She allowed herself one night, and one night only, to feel sad and hold a pity party. Since then she's been working on rehabilitating her knee and rebuilding muscle. The training room has become her home. She will be on crutches until late November then will begin intense physical therapy. She has her sights set on the spring season and if that isn't meant to be, she takes comfort in knowing another season will dawn next fall.

“It's nobody's fault ... people take driver's education training, too, and some still get into car accidents,” Stanek said.

When she's not in the training room, Stanek sits on the sidelines watching her team. She is their biggest cheerleader.

“It's hard to watch my teammates play and not be able to,” Stanek said. “But I like to think just being there helps them.”

Sideline angst

“You can't imagine,” the angst-ridden mother said. “You just can't imagine what it's like watching the team and your girl is on the sidelines. It's actually devastating.”

Suzanne Wollman's voice cracked with emotion as she recounted the debilitating injury her daughter suffered during open gym last summer. “It's been hard for the community; it's been hard for the team.”

Lorna Wollman, a senior at Terry High School and a member of the Terry Terriers girls varsity basketball team, went up for a jump shot and said the minute her feet left the floor and came back down, she knew something was terribly wrong. Her coach and teammates picked her up, carried her off the floor and to an emergency room. Four weeks later, she learned she would undergo surgery for her ACL injury.

“As fast as the speed of lightning, my senior year of sports was ripped away from me,” Wollman said. “Sitting on the sideline watching my teammates play is heartbreaking. I feel sick to my stomach every game. But I know I need to support my team. They mean everything to me. You can't just leave your team behind.”

She is active in volleyball, basketball and track. They are her life, she said. For now, she has her sights set on spring when she plans to be strong enough to run track. Time is helping to heal some of the emotional wounds. What time doesn't ease, her parents do.

“My mom and dad were heartbroken when they found out their only daughter couldn't play sports but they have kept strong,” Wollman said. “They are my rock and without them I wouldn't be getting through this very well.”

Wollman said she believes everything happens for a reason.

“Though I can't quite figure out a good reason for this one — just yet.”

Hearing a pop

“All I heard was a pop,” said KayLee Grimsrud, a junior at Montana State University Billings. “I didn't know what it was. I've never been injured before.”

She hobbled along for nearly a year, thinking it was a sprain that simply never got better.

“I just kept getting weaker,” she said.

When she finally went to the doctor, it was, to her dismay a torn ACL.

The life-altering injury happened at a recreational intramural game of basketball. She and a colleague both made a play for a loose ball and their knees collided. She had surgery eight weeks ago, ditched her crutches just three weeks ago and is now in intensive physical therapy.

She had entertained the idea of trying out for MSU's basketball team but has abandoned those plans. She got over it and is confident her turn will come next year.

The most difficult aspect of her injury has been living life on a pair of crutches.

“I couldn't go shopping,” the 21-year-old said. “I couldn't go up stairs. It took away everything. I definitely have an appreciation for people that have surgery. Learning to rehab has been a major challenge. It's such a long process. I will be rehabbing for a while. I know that for sure.”

Injured twice

Lindsey Trollope, a senior at Skyview High and four-year veteran of the Lady Falcons volleyball team, is no stranger to ACL tears. She suffered two before her 17th birthday — one during her freshman year and another in her sophomore year.

“The first time I didn't know what I was getting into,” she said. “The second time was almost worse because I knew exactly what I was getting into. I'm doing great, even performing better than before. It doesn't hold me back. I don't even think about it anymore.”

The pain, the therapy and the sideline views are in her rearview mirror. Trollope has excelled at two positions during her volleyball career at Skyview. She played libero as a sophomore, and ranked second in Class AA with 4.35 digs per set during the 2008 season, and she's played setter the past two seasons. She's averaging 8.00 assists per set, which ranks eighth in class AA, making her one of the top setters in the division.

“You have to be strong mentally,” she said. “You have to have self-drive and you have to want to come back and follow your passion. Volleyball ... is my passion. It could have been so much worse. This was just a small hurdle to overcome.”

Trollope's attitude mirrors her approach both on and off the court and field whether it's been playing volleyball, basketball or running track. Her teammates describe her as having a “lot of fight in her.”

Troy Trollope, Lindsey's father and head athletic trainer at Skyview, said her involvement in other activities helped get her through those difficult months of rehabilitation. She was a member of All State Band for three years, playing clarinet.

“I was happy she had another avenue of interest, so sports didn't define her,” Troy Trollope said. “The energy, time and emotion she poured into band helped her through her depression.”

She appeared to have suffered another knee injury on Oct. 26 while trying to chase down a ball near the official's ladder, but her coach said she has been released to play.

Bouncing back

One of the leading scorers of the Central High School Rams soccer team this year is Jaelene Zygmond, the same young athlete who sat out most of last season with a torn ACL.

She had a stellar year and has been accepted to Rocky Mountain College where she will play soccer. She scored a goal to help the Rams win a third straight Class A championship on Oct.30. It is no accident. It was all part of her plan.

“It was hard to sit out but it was what had to be done,” Zygmond said. “It was definitely hard to sit there and watch your team play and do nothing but cheer them on.”

She devoted countless hours to rehabilitation, focusing on restoring motion and strength, and improving the stability of her knee to prevent future injuries. She was a woman with a mission.

“It is my senior year and I wanted to prove to everyone I could play,” she said. “I wanted to prove to people that my injury was not a hindrance to my playing. Actually, I think I'm playing even better than I did before I was injured.”

'Crushing' setback

If you ask Erika Halle who she is, she will say she is a track and field athlete at Montana State University Billings. When she was a junior at Manhattan Christian High School, she could not say that. She shredded ligaments in her left leg and spent the bulk of the track season in physical therapy.

“I was crushed,” she said. “It was very emotional. I didn't even know what to do. It was my identity. It was how people knew me. My team counted on me. They thought I was going to have this amazing year. It crushed more than just my dreams. It crushed my parents. It crushed my coaches. It crushed my teammates.”

She punished herself in her senior year of high school, pushing harder than she should have to make up for lost time. She was still in pain, which limited her training. During her freshman year at MSU-Bozeman, training became more difficult, which eventually led to surgery and she sat out the entire indoor track season.

“I found many ways to fight through the mental and physical aspects of it ...,” she said. “It helped me push through ... my first few years of college.”

Multisport athlete

Bailey Nickoloff's sports bio is full of accolades and awards. As a freshman, she was on a cross country team that placed second at state. That year in basketball, she became a starter mid-season. She was named all conference, and first team defense all conference. She was the team high free throw shooter and the team co-MVP. She qualified for state in the javelin.

As a sophomore she moved from cross country to volleyball. She was named honorable mention all conference. She was the team's highest digger and most accurate server. She was part of the “100 club” having more than 100 digs, and was co-captain for a few games. In basketball she was the team captain for the Culbertson Cowgirls and was named first team all conference and Eastern C Division All State. She led the team in rebounding and scoring. In track and field, she qualified for both the javelin and high jump at state. She broke the Culbertson High School record for the javelin.

On July 6, just six days before she was scheduled to travel to Australia to play basketball as part of an all-state team, she played in a pick-up tournament in Lambert. She was going for a loose ball when her foot stopped and the rest of her kept going. She had surgery on Aug. 2 for a torn ACL.

“I'm getting better as fast as I can,” she said. “The hardest part has been watching the girls play without me.”

She has taken on the role of official bookkeeper for the team and attends all games and practices. She was fitted two weeks ago for her ACL brace and has begun running and some strengthening exercises.

“My goal is to be back mid-season. I think that's very realistic if I keep working hard,” Nickoloff said. “I am being aggressive but not reckless. Unfortunately it's not an injury you snap right back from.”

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Contact Cindy Uken at 657-1287 or cuken@billingsgazette.com.

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