When life serves you lemons you make lemonade, and when life serves you a volleyball you better dig that thing up.
Oakdale High senior Justin Keith saw more lemons than volleyballs this summer after she discovered a fracture in her spine just weeks before an expected trip to the Junior Olympics.
But Keith returned to the court 12 weeks later in triumphant fashion. She delivered kills and digs as a big part of Oakdale’s varsity volleyball lineup in her first extended action of the 2011 campaign during Oakdale’s season opener on Aug. 31.
Her injury, the ensuing road to recovery and her big plans ahead are a true source of inspiration.
On the verge of an unforgettable summer and in the best shape of her life, Keith was stunned to learn the news. Doctors told Keith she likely suffered the injury because of an underdeveloped vertebrae on her spine that had taken a blow and fractured during a volleyball practice in early 2011. The injury didn’t strike hard until a Valley Oak League track meet in June, when sudden searing pain forced Keith to be carried from the contest.
When doctors diagnosed a spinal fracture and assigned Keith to a back brace two weeks before her flight to the Junior Olympics, it was truly devastating.
“I had figured it was something muscular that was wrong, and never at all thought I could have fractured my spine,” Keith said. “I had already booked a plane ticket and hotel room for Junior Olympics, and I was really excited for the experience and to be seen by a lot of college scouts.
“It was such a setback.”
The same active athlete who had shined on the volleyball court and high school track was suddenly confined to a cumbersome back brace throughout her summer. And the loss of muscle tissue, rib bruising, and open sores created by the brace were only the physical effects.
“No matter what I was doing, I had to have that thing on 24 hours a day,” Keith said. “Wherever I went people just kind of stared and made me uncomfortable.
“It gave me a new appreciation for people with disabilities.”
Down But Not Out
Keith said one of the hardest things to do was break the news to Oakdale volleyball coach Shelli Ponce, who had already mentored her through two seasons at the varsity level.
“Justina had actually texted me and told me that we needed to talk in person, so I knew it was something serious if she needed to come over and talk to me face to face,” Ponce said. “She told me what had happened and she was already very positive about returning to action. I think her positive attitude was the key factor in her recovery.”
Keith said words of encouragement from her coach during that discussion also played a big role in her motivation to return to the court.
And while Keith was forced to miss out on trips to the lake and other summer activities with a 24-hour handcuff, she certainly wasn’t prevented from being a part of the OHS volleyball program.
She attended summer practices and watched her team gain valuable experience from University of Nevada coaches at the OHS Summer Camp. She couldn’t participate, but her post beyond the edges of the net reminded her teammates that she wasn’t going anywhere.
“I lived for volleyball, and I wanted my team to know that I was still 100 percent dedicated to them,” Keith said. “I couldn’t sit at home while my whole team was working hard, and it was really nice to have the team always asking me how my back was feeling. I really didn’t expect the team to welcome me and support me the way they did.”
Back In Action
After walking and doing lunging exercises for weeks, Keith was finally able to ditch the back brace in late August. She watched her team work through scrimmages with Johansen and Ripon and even was allowed to play a few points during a foundation game scrimmage victory over Beyer on Aug. 29.
Two days later she got her first real taste of the 2011 season when Oakdale hosted Pitman to start the regular season.
Onlookers may have expected Keith to warm up a little timid, but her first hits at the net made a distinct impression of her intentions that day.
On her first warm-up spike, she expertly thundered home a ball off the deep left corner of fair territory. Her next one slammed off the arms of a would-be digger and nearly exploded a tray of nachos in the nearby bleachers. Her third shot knocked a digger backwards to her back, and the fourth cruised along the left foul line for an easy point.
“It seemed like it was so easy to fracture my spine, so a little piece of me was unsure of myself,” Keith said. “But in volleyball you have to give it everything you have got, and I wanted to prove that I could still play. I hit that ball extra hard in warm-ups to break through my own line of thinking.”
Some big hits during warm-ups did little to rush coach Ponce, who had intentions to ease her star outside hitter back into the lineup. Keith stayed on the bench during the first seven points of game one, but played 25 of the 47 total scores as Oakdale relinquished a 22-25 loss to the Division I Pride.
She entered game No. 2 just two tallies into play and saw all but 12 of the 40 points in a 15-25 loss.
By the third game Keith had earned the starting nod, and responded with big digs and late kills to give Oakdale hopes of a comeback in an eventual 23-25 defeat. She played every point of the third game and finished with five digs and three kills on the night.
“We started her out slow, but it was great to see her back on the court,” coach Ponce said. “I was really kind of amazed to see her hitting the ball so well already.
“I am kind of in dream land. I didn’t expect her to recover so quickly and play so well after the injury.”
Big Plans Ahead
Keith, along with fellow senior captains Domi Powell and McKenzie Willet and senior libero Brittany Salas, have high hopes for the 2011 season. The four tasted the postseason last year after eight straight wins locked up a Valley Oak League title and advanced the team to the quarterfinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
And Keith says the team can do even better this year.
“I think we are capable of going all the way to a section title, and that is the goal,” Keith said. “We know we have the talent to do it, so we aren’t expecting anything less.
“We don’t want to walk away knowing we had a win and we didn’t give it our all.”
And while Keith missed her shot at attention from scouts when the injury ended her Junior Olympic bid, she still plans to pursue a college career on the court.
“I will email some coaches and any offer that I get will be something that I look at, even if I have to red shirt,” Keith said. “I live for this sport and I just want to keep playing.”