November 13, 2014 will be a day that is forever engraved in the mind of Meredith Coba.
Idaho volleyball was in the midst of a five-set battle with Big Sky rival North Dakota. The fifth set was tied at seven when Coba went to set a ball, like she had done 2,306 times before in her career.
But this time was different.
This time the packed Memorial Gym fell silent. This time she ended up underneath the net in obvious signs of distress. This time was bad.
In real time nothing looked out of the ordinary. But slowed down it was easy to spot. As Coba ran from the backcourt to set the ball at the net, her right foot landed at an awkward angle atop the foot of the UND middle. Coba immediately grabbed her knee and fell to the ground. Her face told the rest of the story.
The result: a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and meniscus to go along with a non-weight bearing fractured femur.
It was a pain Coba said she “had never felt before.” Lying on her back she recalled all the emotions running through her head. Scared. Frustrated. The unknown.
“I’ve never watched it back,” Coba admitted. “I have just had everyone tell me what it looked like. I knew immediately that something was wrong. I had never felt anything like that before.”
In the days following the injury the diagnosis was not 100 percent clear. What was clear was that her junior season was done. Coba was forced to miss the final two matches of the season, the last being a 3-0 loss to Northern Arizona in the Big Sky Tournament, ending the Vandals’ season. She ranked 26th nationally in assists per set to close 2014 and for her efforts the conference voted her First Team All-Big Sky.
“It was very challenging at the time,” she recalled. “I was not exactly sure for a couple days what exactly happened. I was trying to stay positive, but it was very emotional.”
The task at hand became getting back on the court for Idaho’s 2015 opener. She had nine months and change, before the Vandals’ August 28 opener at Hawaii. Her surgery happened just before Christmas and she began rehab soon after in her hometown of Salem, Ore.
For the first time in her playing-life, Coba was in uncharted territory. Having never experienced an injury of this nature, the unexpected was a wildcard.
“I had no idea what was coming my way. My physical therapist was amazing. She changed my overall perspective and my life going forward. I know that really helped me. She was amazing.”
Knee injuries can vary case-by-case. As do the recovery times. Take a look at the professional ranks. Adrian Peterson returned to the Minnesota Vikings six months after his injury. For Derrick Rose his knee tear forced him to miss the entire Chicago Bulls 2012-13 season. Both Peterson and Rose were recovering from ACL tears, Coba had an entire knee to rehab.
Four months following the injury the Vandals were back on the court for the spring season. The team resumed limited practices and tournament play without its starting setter for the first time in her four years. As the team was running around the court tuning up for the fall, Coba was on the sidelines as a spectator.
“I knew going into the spring that I would not be playing. I had progressions each week that allowed me to get more physical with my activities. Getting to jog and then run for the first time was pretty exciting.
“[Mentally] it was tough. I went from being a starter to not really having a huge role on the team at that point. I was very much focused on getting myself back.”
As the summer approached and the months counted down towards August, Coba recalled experiencing some doubt that she might not be ready for Hawaii. Her knee began to act up, causing more frustration. For every good day that she experienced there were matching down days.
“I had all the support in the world from my team. Nothing but positive encouragement. I think that seriously helped me. The community was awesome. It made for a great environment to rehab in.”
Nine months and 15 days later the Vandals opened the 2015 season at nationally ranked Hawaii. Coba had her named announced as a starter in front of 6,845 people. All her perseverance paid off.
“Everything I had worked for had come in that one moment [playing at Hawaii],” Coba fondly recalled. “I mean we were playing Hawaii. There could not have been a better game and environment to come back in. I was super emotional. I told my family the moment I stepped on the court I would probably start crying. I did not cry. Probably because I was really nervous. It was pretty special.”
For the most part it has been business as usual for Coba and the Vandals. The team transitioned into a 6-2 offense, utilizing two or three setters per match. For Coba that means more rest during the match than she has been used to. Head coach Debbie Buchanan also limited her play in the non-conference season, keeping her fresh for the gauntlet that is the Big Sky season.
Coba knows that she still needs to work on her knee to continue to get back to form. She would like to improve her strength in her hamstring and get faster on the court. “[The knee] is never going to be perfect so I have to just go along with it. Here I am back on the court and I would never trade that for anything.”
As for November 13, 2015?
“It will be a good day,” Coba said with a smile. “It will be a very mentally reassuring day. I have made it this far, almost the entire season. I am still pushing. I am still getting better.”