Gain trumps pain

A knee injury didn't stop South Carroll's Melissa Axtell from dominating in volleyball.


For South Carroll volleyball standout Melissa Axtell, the routine this season was always pretty much the same. Ice the throbbing left knee for 20 minutes before playing, then ice it again immediately after.

Despite playing the entire season with a knee injury that last week culminated in her second surgery in as many years, the 6-foot-1 senior dominated like few others in the metro area, averaging a county-best four kills and 1.2 blocks per game to lead her team to an 11-6 mark and a trip to the Class 2A West finals.

She even pulled double-duty for the Cavaliers by becoming a setter when she was in the back row - an extreme rarity for a top hitter.

"To watch her play, you wouldn't think she was hurting," South Carroll coach Debbie Eaton said. "She's played through the pain, but she doesn't complain about it and doesn't use that as an excuse."

How bad was the pain?

"It hurts to walk, basically," Axtell said before last Wednesday's surgery. "Once in a while it will get to me. Like if we play five games, my knee will start stiffening up and bothering me. But if we just play three games, I'm able to kind of ignore it."

Axtell suffered her initial injury - a torn meniscus - last winter while working out with her brother, Philip, a hockey player. While jumping on a piece of equipment called a Plyo Box, designed to improve leg strength, she felt a sudden rush of pain and knew immediately that something was wrong.

"It just swelled up," Axtell said of the knee.

Though surgery repaired the cartilage, Axtell said that it never healed quite right. Determined to play this season after sitting out for several months, she got through daily practices by using ice packs to reduce the swelling, and aspirin to numb the pain. With the way she played, however, most opponents never knew she wasn't 100 percent.

"I don't think on the court that you could tell," said Winters Mill coach Shelly Katzef, adding that Axtell's multiple talents presented special problems. "She's involved in every play, and to try as an opposing coach to keep her out of every play is impossible."

Liberty coach Dave Trumbo took it a step further after his team's regional final match against South Carroll.

"The whole game plan was Axtell," Trumbo said. "Everything was built around, `If she's here, we're going to do this.' "

Pretty high praise for a girl who had never played the sport until high school, and if not for a little prodding from her parents, may never have even tried.

Known as "Moe" to her friends, Axtell spent much of her time playing basketball and softball when she was growing up, and almost as much time on the sideline as a cheerleader with the Winfield Recreation Council.

In fact, her initial plan coming into high school wasn't to play volleyball, but to spend her fall season cheering.

"She wanted to cheer and we told her no," said Trish Axtell, Melissa's mother. "She said, `Well, if I can't cheer I'll play field hockey.' I was like, `Melissa, you're tall. Why waste being tall?' I said, `Even if they do make the sticks long enough, you're going to be bending over 99 percent of the time.'"

Melissa's father, A.J., then helped seal the decision. "I didn't even want to play," recalled Melissa, `but my dad put me in the car and made me go."

Playing the sport for the first time in her life, the 5-10 freshman was awkward, and even feared she would get cut from the junior varsity.

"When I tried to pass, the ball went everywhere," Axtell recalled. "Hitting, it went either straight into the net or out of the court."

Taking the advice of her JV coach, she started playing club ball in New Windsor, where she began to grasp the basics. Her progression became even more pronounced when she started to attend volleyball camps.

There, she learned from instructors how to harness her immense power, and by her sophomore year, her first on the varsity, the improvement was palpable. Her dominating play around the net earned her first-team All-County honors.

As a junior, she added a component to her game when Eaton, hoping to take advantage of her soft hands and court awareness, had her act as a setter when the rotation took her to the back row.

"Lots of times, your hitters don't really have soft hands when it comes to setting, but Moe does," Eaton said. "She has good ball sense and she knows where everybody belongs on the court. It's very unusual. I can only remember one or maybe two other players as long as I've coached who I've used in that capacity."

Now, the senior has earned a scholarship to continue her career at Loyola College, whose coach, Kristina Hernandez, also coached Axtell on a regional club team representing Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware. Though she has orally committed, she still must take the SAT.

Once the injury heals, she's hoping to return for the final weeks of basketball, another sport in which she earned first-team All-County honors as a sophomore. Returning to South Carroll's softball team this spring is also on her to-do list.

To Axtell, however, there's no sport quite like volleyball, and no feeling quite as satisfying as the one she gets from cranking out the perfect kill shot.

"I love it when you hit the ball straight down the line, and they're in toward the middle," she said. "Then the next time they go to the line and you hit it [straight], and they don't know what to do. I just love that feeling."

For Axtell, it's one that even the most excruciating pain could never diminish.

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