Sometime during volleyball’s first match of the year, a shriek sounded out from a nearby court, as a player from another team went down in pain. Even though the sound came from a different court, the Maroons’ front line reflexively looked to their back row, their thoughts on one player in particular.
The focus of their concern was fourth-year Diandra Bucciarelli who, with two surgeries on her knee and one on her shoulder in the past couple years, has struggled with injury for much of her Chicago career.
Bucciarelli’s troubles started in October of her second year, when she tore her ACL in a game against Illinois Tech. Making matters worse, she also found out around that time that Dorinda von Tersch, the head coach who recruited her and coached her for two seasons, would not be returning to the team the next year.
“I looked to [von Tersch] as a mother and when I found out that she wasn’t going to be with us anymore, that was a really hard time,” Bucciarelli said. “It was right after I had gotten hurt and everything.”
A glimmer of good fortune appeared when the University began the process of interviewing candidates to fill the head-coaching slot.
“The athletic directors allowed three of us that were on the team to interview the people that were going through the process,” Bucciarelli said. “I believe [head coach Vanessa Walby] was our first person, and when she left the room, all three of us looked at each other and were like, ‘This is our coach.’ She brought so much to this program and has changed so many things and I’m just excited about this year and next year.”
Bucciarelli advanced steadily in the recovery process throughout the spring of her second year, but then had a disheartening setback that summer.
“I was just hoping to be back the next season,” Bucciarelli said, “but I re-tore my meniscus later that June.”
After a second knee surgery, playing volleyball with the team during her third year was out of the question. But Bucciarelli’s inability to participate in practices or matches didn’t stop her from showing up.
“I was still there every day for practices and I went to the majority of the games,” Bucciarelli said. “I’ve played volleyball since I was in fifth grade, and I’ve been on this team since my freshman year, so it was really rough when I wasn’t able to actually play and be involved.”
Once it was clear she wouldn’t be playing as a third-year, Bucciarelli decided to use her time away from volleyball to take care of a pre-existing injury.
“I wasn’t ready by that next season of my third year, and I’d had a shoulder problem since my junior year of high school, so I decided to have shoulder surgery that November and take my medical red shirt,” Bucciarelli said. “Basically, I had three surgeries in one year, which is a mess, but I love to play so I couldn’t imagine stopping.”
More than a year and a half after she was sidelined by her first injury, Bucciarelli stepped back onto the court this season. In her absence, the team has undergone some drastic changes. Last year brought not only a new coach, but a bevy of talented new recruits as well.
“Although they were a young team last year, playing on the court, it didn’t seem like that,” Bucciarelli said. “Every single person on the team stepped up and everyone in our conference is really impressed with how UChicago has changed for the best.”
As the only fourth-year on the team, Bucciarelli must deal with being in a leadership position, despite not having played many matches with the second-year class.
“These girls have already played together and I’m like this new member, but they’re supposed to be looking to me as a captain,” Bucciarelli said. “It’s a huge spot to fill especially because everyone else is younger and it’s just myself as a senior, but I feel like everything fell into place like it should and it’s been going really well.”
Walby, who worked with Bucciarelli throughout her long recovery process, expressed her gratitude for the example the fourth year has set.
“To see her battle through her injuries and see her come out energetic and hopeful is great for the team,” Walby said.
Bucciarelli still has not recovered completely from her shoulder surgery, but the process is moving along swiftly.
“Her swing is going along more smoothly than I thought it would, and she’s getting into a rhythm a lot faster than I thought she would,” Walby said. “Now it’s just getting her swing back to 100 percent.”
Even though she’s not yet in peak form, Bucciarelli said that the team as a whole is more prepared for conference competition than ever before. Walby has adjusted the early season schedule such that the team plays more difficult matches earlier in the season.
“In the past, we’ve played the same teams three or four times, but [Walby] wanted to change things up and make things tougher so we’re ready for conference, and so we have that mentality of pushing through,” Bucciarelli said.
Bucciarelli and the team will have the chance to see just how prepared they are when they play in the first UAA Round Robin, to be held this weekend in Rochester. The Maroons (12–7) will face off against Emory (15–2) on Saturday, and then meet NYU (15–3) and Carnegie Mellon (9–6) on Sunday.