CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois volleyball team was in the final hour of a practice this week, and although Anna Dorn wasn’t on the Huff Hall court — or even on her feet — she was fully engaged.
Lying on her stomach and propped up on her elbows near the court’s perimeter, the redshirt junior served as a scorekeeper for an ongoing scrimmage. With each point, Dorn would flip a numbered card on the portable — and decidedly low-tech — manual scoreboard in front of her.
For the starting middle blocker, this was a light-duty training day, as decreed by Illini coach Kevin Hambly. With Dorn operating — no pun intended — on a twice-surgically repaired left knee, days like these remain a common feature of her weekly training schedule. “We do as much as we can without pushing it on one day, and then we go hard and push it a little bit another day,” Hambly said. “And then we rest her and get her ready for the weekend. So tomorrow will be her hard day.”
Hambly is taking this cautious approach in hopes of keeping his only veteran middle blocker available for duty on most match nights throughout a gruelling 30-match regular season and beyond.
Already, Hambly has withheld Dorn from two matches — each on a day when Illinois played twice “because we know her knee will balloon up (otherwise),” he said.
Even so, Dorn isn’t always able to avoid swelling in the knee. Five-set matches, of which she and her teammates have played three so far, typically leave Dorn with a puffy left knee. The good news, she says, is that she feels only muscle tightness on those occasions. No real pain, to speak of.
“So far, I feel pretty good,” Dorn said.
That left knee has been through a lot. In 2010, in the second match of her college career, Dorn’s freshman season was quickly cut short when she suffered a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament.
The Munster, Ind., native returned in 2011 seemingly good as new, ranking third nationally among freshmen in blocks per set and helping a 32-win Illini team finish second in the NCAA tournament.
Last season, Dorn finished with a .383 hitting percentage that ranked ninth in program history and 19th in the nation.
During a practice last November, however, Dorn dove for a ball and felt muscle tightness in her left knee that lingered. She continued to play, but once Illinois was eliminated from NCAA tournament consideration, Dorn was held out of the team’s final three matches.
As it turned out, the pre-med student suffered a complete tear of cartilage. By early December, Dorn was back on an operating table.
“I have a strip of cartilage that is gone,” she said.
Again, Dorn would need to go through a rehabilitation program. Again, her perseverance would be tested.
She wasn’t medically cleared during the team’s training period last spring, and when Dorn did some limited work during the Illini’s trip to Italy in late May, there was swelling in the knee that forced her to stop.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty rough,” she said. “So much of a roller coaster with dealing with that. I just take it game by game, try not to think about it too much.”
Still, no one needs to tell Dorn that her knee — at least not yet — isn’t allowing her to be the athlete she’s accustomed to being.
“I sometimes fight the mental battles of knowing that I might not be able to jump as many times or jump as high,” she said.
Under the circumstances, Hambly isn’t complaining.
”To jump high, you have to jump a lot,” he said. “She’s not getting the same jumps in (at practice). She’s jumping high enough, though. She’s probably (touching) 10-(foot)-5. I’ve got pictures of her (from matches this season), and her chest’s above the net.”
Dorn’s reduced training time also does her no favors on the attack. As a middle, she plays a position in which coordination with the setter is the trickiest and most exact of any on the court. Repetition is essential, the kind of repetition her left knee currently doesn’t allow.
Although Dorn looked like her old self last weekend against Washington, belting seven kills in 11 swings, her current season hitting percentage of .286 is nearly 100 points below her 2012 figure.
“I think the hard thing for her is she’s not as good offensively as she’d like to be now ... (or) defensively because she’s used to getting the same amount of reps (as her teammates),” Hambly said.
At one point, Dorn said, the possibility existed she might not be ready to return to action until the Big Ten opener.
“Right now, we’re doing a lot better than anticipated, so that was a nice surprise,” she said.
For Dorn, it’s been a challenging past 11 or so months for more reasons than her knee. On July 2, her grandfather, Chuck Taylor, died. The 84-year-old Danville resident never missed an Illini home match during Dorn’s college career, and Taylor’s pride in his granddaughter was apparent.
“That was definitely hard,” Dorn said. “It’s always, I think, really tough to lose somebody who’s close to you. ... Because he lived so close to here, I would see him almost every other week.”
Not that this past year hasn’t been without its moments to relish, too, for Dorn. NHL fans know what her beloved Chicago Blackhawks accomplished in the Stanley Cup finals.
“My dad (John) and I always watched the games,” Dorn recalled. “I think I’m going (to a Blackhawks home game) over Christmas break.”
Dorn continues to contribute what she can to her team on one good leg and hope for the best from the other.
“It’s pretty much something that I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my time here,” Dorn said. “But that’s life. You always have to deal with difficult things and figure out a way to make it through.
“I’m doing fine as of right now.”