Kelly Sheffield acknowledges there’s a chance his University of Wisconsin volleyball team might have to play the 2017 season without Molly Haggerty.
But if that turns out to be the case, the UW coach doesn’t want to be the one to break the news to her.
“You tell her there’s a chance that she’s not playing this year,” Sheffield said, “she’ll punch you in the nose.”
The fate of Sheffield’s nose and perhaps that of his team might well be riding on the condition of Haggerty’s back.
Haggerty, the Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year and a third-team All-American last season, underwent surgery in January to repair a herniated disk in her lower back. She sat out the spring season while recovering and was then cleared for a return to light activity before suffering a recurrence of the injury.
Haggerty admits she was a little overzealous in her workouts, but doctors told her there was a risk of re-injury even if she had taken it slower.
“They said I could’ve sneezed and re-herniated it,” Haggerty said. “They said there’s a possibility that getting a second surgery wouldn’t help it because it will be bone-on-bone at some point because all of the disk will be gone.”
Haggerty said the back pain goes back to her high school days and that it flared up early and often last season.
“I have a very high pain tolerance,” she said. “And being a freshman, I didn’t want to speak up and say I was in pain. So I just kind of played through it.”
Despite playing in pain, she averaged a team-high 3.41 kills per set while playing in 31 of the 33 matches. She set a UW three-set record with 27 kills against Texas A&M.
But after struggling in the season-ending loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, Haggerty knew something had to be done.
As bad as she felt with the injury, the recovery process after the surgery proved to be just as agonizing, psychologically.
“In the spring I had a really bad attitude and I was really negative,” Haggerty said. “I just kind of felt bad for myself. I’d say, ‘Why me? Why this?’ I wasn’t making people around me any better and I was just mad all the time. That negative attitude affected my whole life. I wasn’t the person that I always was.
“I’m in a better place now. In the spring I was thinking I was like I’m not going to be nearly as good as I ever was. But now I have a very positive attitude about it and I think that will get me closer to what I was and what I can be. I just keep telling myself that this situation happened for a reason and I’m going to be tougher from it.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise for me, personally, because I’ve never really had this long of a break to sit back and see what my life is without volleyball. I definitely know for sure that I want to play as long as my body lets me.”
Haggerty, who hasn’t touched a volleyball since March, has been working with the team’s strength and conditioning staff and the trainers to try to strengthen her core. She hasn’t been able to lift weights so she won’t be as strong as before, but the goal is to become quicker and more mobile.
She will be re-examined in about three weeks and is optimistic she will be cleared to participate when practice begins in early August.
“We’re hoping we’ll have her back this year,” Sheffield said. “But we’ve also talked with her about how this is going to be a process to get back and be as good as you can possibly be. The object is not to be great in September; the object is to be great in December.”
As she works toward getting back on the court this season, Haggerty frequently draws inspiration from her last match as she struggled physically in the loss to Stanford.
“I’ve watched that match probably 20 times and I can definitely see my movements,” she said. “I was super slow in the back court and wasn’t explosive. I was in a lot of pain and I didn’t want to say anything. It’s kind of hard looking back at it because I feel like if I could’ve done something more I could’ve changed the outcome.
“On my phone screen I have Stanford as the wallpaper. I put that there right after we lost and it motivates me every day.”
“You tell her there’s a chance that she’s not playing this year, she’ll punch you in the nose.” UW coach Kelly Sheffield, on Molly Haggerty