One moment of shock and disappointment for Kris Harris became a gateway to success for Ally Karle.
Nearly a year after Harris had a season-ending knee injury, the Elon University volleyball team now has two capable middle blockers going into a season with almost its entire roster back and a heightened level of expectation entering the Colonial Athletic Association.
Harris, a senior, is working her way back from a knee injury suffered last October to team up with sophomore Karle, who stepped in when Harris went down, to form a formidable tandem of middles at the center of the net for Elon.
Power conference foes and untested waters in the CAA await Elon as the season commences, and it’ll be Harris and Karle that carry the Phoenix in its quest to develop and play to a higher standard.
“They’re such strong girls, very athletic for their age,” sophomore outside hitter Kayla Agae said of Harris and Karle. “Going up as big as possible, shutting down the other hitters, funneling that ball to our defense — they’re just making it work really well.”
Heartbreak for Harris
It was the first set of a Friday evening game at Alumni Gym against The Citadel. Harris, as usual, was patrolling the middle as Elon scrapped its way to a 10-7 lead. On the ensuing point, Harris went down awkwardly on her left knee.
It became the last point she played that season. She had surgery soon after.
It was a tough moment that led to even tougher days for Harris, watching from the sidelines as Elon lost eight of its next 12 games, falling in the first round to Georgia Southern University and concluding the campaign with a mark of 16-17.
Through it all, Harris looked to her teammates for continuous support and used what she remembered from undergoing shoulder surgery as a freshman in high school.
“It’s been a long road,” Harris said. “I know at first, probably the hardest was post-surgery, the couple months after surgery, especially being on crutches and whatnot. I’ve really been working on strengthening my muscle in my quad and my hamstring, working on jumping and single-leg stuff. Just trying to get my left knee back to where my right knee is.”
As practice began for Elon in early August, Harris was still slowly getting back to full strength. She planned to play in full scrimmages shortly before the season opener Aug. 29 against the University of Maryland and return to the court sometime early in the year.
“With any injury, you take it day by day and see what happens,” said Elon head coach Mary Tendler. “Once she can get past a certain level of doing something, then we take her to the next level. When she gets in her first actual match for her senior year, that’s going to be huge for us. Not just what she can provide for us on the court, but just the emotional lift.”
Harris, from Apex, has started at middle blocker in 69 of 81 matches she’s played at Elon dating back to her freshman year. She’s amassed 601 kills and 231 blocks in that time.
“She brings a lot of energy. She’s really aggressive,” said senior outside hitter Chanelle Smith. “Hopefully we can get back to that point with her this season so she can finish her career ballin’ basically like she usually does.”
With Harris out, something was missing in the middle for Elon. The day after her injury, her absence was noted — Georgia Southern hit .284 against the Phoenix in a three-set triumph.
“Believe me, there was a big gap when we lost her,” said junior setter Ana Nicksic. “It totally was not fun.”
That’s where Karle filled in.
A freshman role player still adjusting to the college game, Karle became a go-to middle for Elon with sophomore Catherine Head also missing time to injury. Karle finished the year with 172 kills (tied for fifth on the team) and 87 total blocks (best on the team), garnering a spot on the SoCon All-Freshman team.
“Ally took what was handed to her and didn’t just settle for it,” said redshirt freshman setter Sydel Curry. “She took it and ran with it. She made the best out of it, and it helped us a lot. She definitely showed what she’s really about.”
Karle, from Flanders, New Jersey, was crushed for Harris, but knew an opportunity had presented itself.
“Of course I had in my mind, ‘This is my chance, make or break. I need to prove myself now because I might not get another chance,’” Karle said. “But at the same time, besides just me getting a chance and proving myself, I had to step up and try to do what [Harris] was doing for the team because I know we needed that.”
That momentum and aggressive mindset have carried into this preseason, where Karle is once again on top of her game.
“It’s definitely like a push,” Karle said of her play at the end of last year. “Any doubts you might have had, like, ‘Oh, it’s really hard,’ you can look and say, ‘Oh, I can do it.’”
Off the floor, Karle’s teammates described her as a “sweetheart” and said they routinely watch movies and go bowling together.
“She’s very family-oriented,” Agae said of Karle. “She loves being with her family, loves being with her friends. She cares for what other people are doing and really wants to include others. It’s awesome to have a friend, a best friend with you.”
Putting it all together
Looking back, Harris channels her thoughts and quickly comes to an optimistic viewpoint when looking at her injury.
“At first, I was like, ‘Why did this happen to me?’” Harris said. “Then I realized it was better that it happened then than happening my senior year, or even later in the season where I can’t compete my whole senior year. The timing worked out.”
Tendler acknowledged, too, sometimes injuries can come to show new strengths and previously unknown depth on a team.
“There’s always a positive. When someone’s out, someone else comes in and steps in,” Tendler said. “Ally did a great job of coming in and doing her job. She progressed a lot quicker her freshman year probably than she would have if Kris was healthy the whole year. Now, all of a sudden, I have a sophomore middle blocker that’s experienced.”
Harris and Karle aren’t Elon’s only middles, though. Head has shown potential in the past, and there’s been nothing but good reviews on freshman Michelle Klein.
“As a defensive player, it’s nice to have some hands up there that’ll take away some court,” said sophomore defensive specialist Morgan Maner.
And that’s just what they’ll do.
After a second half of 2013 that featured emotional and athletic highs and lows, Kris Harris and Ally Karle are back to enforce the middle, pairing up to create the presence at the net Elon needs to hold its own.