Freda Runnells is familiar with playing in pain.
Runnells, a 6-foot sophomore middle hitter from Urbana, Ill., has persevered through almost two seasons of frustrating losses and personal injuries with the Stephens Stars.
The Stars, an NCAA division III volleyball team, finished 0-12 last year.
“I can honestly say that was probably the most frustrating experience of my life,” Runnells said.
The aggravation of losing has not kept her from persisting through injury.
Before and after every practice, she wraps a clear ice pack around her right knee to minimize swelling from tendonitis, bursitis, runner’s and jumper’s knee.
“No matter what I’m doing, my knee will always really be bad because of sports,” Runnells said.
Injuries have limited her mobility but have not limited her desire to compete.
“Last year, I was always on the floor, and I always landed on my hipbone,” Runnells said. “One of the last games, I dove for the ball and cracked it open.
“When we changed sides, the trainer was looking at my hipbone because you can’t bleed in any sport and have it on your uniform, but there was bruise upon bruise upon bruise.”
With all the injuries, Runnells said she was unsure whether she wanted to play after the disappointing season. She considered putting an end to her volleyball career.
Stars coach Deb Duren was looking for toughness and someone willing to give a gritty performance.
Runnells embodied the drive and mindset necessary to compete. She wavered, though, about joining the team.
Duren knew about Runnells’ misgivings but had a plan.
“Everyone who had indicated an interest in volleyball got a note saying go to gym and we’ll run a practice,” Runnells said. “She sent me this little note that she sent everyone else, and she wrote, ‘Hey Freda, hope to see you there.”
“The personal touch just kills me,” Runnells said.
Duren said because of Runnells’ intelligence, she was a great fit for the team.
“I always say no matter where I was coaching, even when I coached at Mizzou, I would much rather have six moderately talented smart players than six that are talented but not very bright because this is a smart player’s game,” Duren said.
“Freda is very smart; she’s very volleyball savvy. Probably in all my years of coaching, I haven’t coached anybody who has as much knowledge of the game as she does, who can read offense and defense and other things she needs to do.”
Runnells said she couldn’t turn down Duren’s invitation.
“I have a lot of respect for Deb, and it would be disrespectful for me not to come to the first practice because she asked me to,” Runnells said.
When she got there, she saw some familiar faces such as Katie Aichholz and Alisha Gay, and there was an encouraging group of freshmen.
Dominating the center of the court, Runnells said she believes it is her job to be a stopper for the Stars.
With a career-high 16 blocks in a 3-1 victory against Harris-Stowe on Monday, Runnells achieved her objective in shutting down the opposition.
“I feel like if the other team has one person who’s being really successful, I feel it’s my job to shut that down,” Runnells said. “Against Harris-Stowe, I knew who their hitters were; I said before the game, ‘I’m on it.’”
Runnells, who also had 17 kills against the Hornets, said she focuses her energy on defense.
“With a block, what you’re saying is, ‘I’m better than you.’” Runnells said. “It’s the ultimate attitude and direct competition, one on one.”
Her playmaking abilities, in turn, help to inspire her teammates.
“I feel that pressure, too, to produce the power play where I get a big block or I get a big kill, and that motivates them,” Runnells said. “I feel that’s my job.”
The bench for the Stars (2-9) acts to relieve some of that pressure, Runnells said.
“I wouldn’t trade them for any bench I’ve ever had, period,” Runnells said. “If it’s my job to encourage the team, I get my encouragement from our bench; that makes me feel better.
“I’ve had more fun this year, and it’s worked better. It’s been worth it for me to play this year.”
Runnells, a co-captain both years on the team, knew her coach and other players were going to turn to her for leadership during the season.
“I think that occasionally my teammates look to me to pull them out of a situation,” Runnells said. “I feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
Aichholz says Runnells’ patience on the court is reassuring to a lot of the other players who are less experienced.
“She’s more competitive individually,” Aichholz said. “She gets more down on herself that she does on her teammates.”