The excitement was building for McKenna Foster. After three weeks of preseason training last August, the Stetson volleyball freshman had one more practice to go before packing for the team’s season-opening road trip to Wyoming. The former Vanguard High School state champion and Florida Class 6A Player of the Year was less than two days away from playing in her first collegiate match.
Then one unfortunate moment put Foster’s entire season on hold.
“About 30 minutes before the end of practice, I went up to hit a ball and came down and landed weird on my knee, and it just gave out,” Foster said. “The first thing I thought of was, ‘Wow, am I going to be able to play tomorrow? Am I going to be able to travel to Wyoming?’ I was really upset because as a freshman, I was so excited to finally play college volleyball. And then all of a sudden, it was all shattered.”
Foster went to the hospital for X-rays and returned to campus knowing there would be no trip to Wyoming. She had never missed a volleyball match due to injury. On top of that, she had to be carried up a flight of stairs just to get to her dorm room. The day had gone from amazing to awful in a blink of an eye.
“It was just a really disappointing night, and I was kind of in a bad mood,” Foster said. “But a lot of my teammates came and visited me. Some of my coaches came to see how I was doing. It really meant a lot to me that they were all so supportive.”
The next day Forster had an MRI exam and learned she had a torn ACL and meniscus as well as a sprained MCL. Surgery would be required, and her freshman season was over before it even began.
Amid the disappointment, Foster had the support of a couple of key individuals. First, her mother, Michelle, came to DeLand to help McKenna get to her doctor’s appointments and keep her focused on the big picture.
“My mom was there not only for me to be a shoulder to cry on but to encourage me and motivate me,” Foster said. “She told me, ‘I know this is tough for you but you are going to come back even stronger. Everything happens for a reason.’ I think that really helped me realize that it was going to be okay and that it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Also encouraging Foster was Stetson athletic trainer Christina To, who had underwent ACL surgery herself. To explained what the process would be like and gave Foster exercises that started her on the road to recovery.
After a successful surgery in late September, Foster began the long rehab process. Day-by-day, little-by-little, she was able to start walking, climbing stairs, and eventually jogging.
By spring practice, Foster, an outside hitter, was able to train with the team but was mostly limited to playing in the back row. Even when she took part in front row hitting drills, she could tell her movements were slower and her timing was off. Doubt began to creep in.
“I definitely had those thoughts a lot during the process and it was discouraging to go from feeling so confident to feeling like I don’t know how to do this anymore,” Foster said. “I knew deep down I was going to get it back eventually, I just had to keep reminding myself of that and try not to get discouraged when things weren’t adding up like I wanted them to.”
During the summer, Foster drove from her hometown of Ocala to DeLand twice a week to work with Stetson strength and conditioning coach Brad Lokey.
“We did a lot of jumping work and lower body stuff and built up to some higher goals,” Foster said. “I think that really helped.”
Foster gained more confidence by playing in open gyms with teammate Abby Boll. She was able to play in the front row and her timing was starting to come back.
The final pieces began falling into place for Foster earlier this month with the return to school and the beginning of preseason practice.
“It felt good to be back to 100% at that level of play,” Foster said. “I hadn’t really done anything like that over the summer. Coming back here and playing with everyone that I miss playing with, it just felt really good. Playing at that level again was awesome.”
Head Coach Kristina Hernandez has had high praise for Foster as well.
“McKenna looks really good right now,” Hernandez said. “She looks really solid. It is obvious she has worked hard over the summer. From what she did in the spring to now is like night and day. She’s going to be fun to watch.”
Foster and the Hatters will open the 2014 season this weekend at the FAU Invitational in Boca Raton, Fla. On Friday, Stetson will face McNeese State at 10 a.m. and Bethune-Cookman at 4:30 p.m. The tournament concludes at 3 p.m. Saturday with a match against FAU.
Live stats, the Stetson volleyball twitter feed, and the Hat-Alerts text messaging system will provide in-game updates as well.
When Foster finally gets to make her collegiate debut, what will her emotions be like?
“I definitely think I will be nervous because even though it is my second year here, it will obviously be my first college match and my first time dressing out in a Stetson jersey. I am going to be pretty nervous but I am also pretty excited. I have been waiting for this for years.”
Foster says missing last year helped her to appreciate the sport of volleyball and appreciate just being able to play.
“Sometimes playing a sport you feel like it is something you have to do,” Foster said. “Now I look at it as something I get to do, because I didn’t get to do it for so long. So now, it is really important for me to go out to practice and play a sport again that I didn’t get to play for so long. It feels really good.”