Taran Eckenrode could not have been more excited. It was Sept. 2, the day the Rock Bridge Bruins were set to open their volleyball season in Jefferson City, and for Eckenrode, a senior setter, it meant a chance to see all her hard work pay off.
She had battled back from a season-ending injury in 2002, and opening day was the culmination of her road back.
But something went terribly wrong.
That morning Eckenrode, 18, left school in her in her Infiniti QX4 to work on a story for her television broadcasting class. According to police reports, as Eckenrode headed northbound on the outer road adjacent to Providence Road, the driver of a Ford F250 pickup pulled off the Peachtree Lane crossover and into Eckenrode’s path.
Eckenrode’s face hit the steering wheel when her car hit the truck and she broke her nose and suffered cuts around her right eye. She pulled off to the side of the road, shaken, but able to walk.
She called her mom, Dawn Eckenrode, who arrived at the scene before Eckenrode was taken to the hospital.
“They were saying, ‘She was asking us how the other guy was, how the car was and can she play volleyball tonight,’” Dawn Eckenrode said. “I said, ‘Then she’s OK.’ ”
Eckenrode and the Bruins (9-13-3) meet Hickman (29-1) tonight at 7 at Rock Bridge.
Road to recovery
Eckenrode’s parents say she is quiet and motivated. Perhaps that is the reason behind a seemingly endless determination that has allowed Eckenrode to persevere through two serious injuries and develop into one of Rock Bridge’s top players.
It has never been easy, though. Her battles with injuries began while playing for the junior varsity in September 2002. During a practice drill, Eckenrode landed awkwardly on her right knee and tore her anterior cruciate ligament. She missed the rest of the season after reconstructive surgery to replace the ligament.
There was even some concern that her career was over.
“You’re always worried about her being injured or reinjured,” said Jim Eckenrode, Eckenrode’s father. “I didn’t know if she would go back to playing her senior year after she injured her (ACL) her junior year, it was less than a year out from her surgery when she went back to playing.”
As her father worried she might not be able to play volleyball again, Eckenrode seemed intent on returning. Her worry was that missing out on club ball would leave her a step behind.
“I was concerned because I wouldn’t be able to play (club ball), so a lot of the girls would be at more play time and practice time,” Eckenrode said. “That kind of upset me that I wasn’t going to get that extra time to play.”
Rejoining the team
Eckenrode wasn’t assured a spot on the Rock Bridge roster before this season started, and returning with a plastic brace fastened around her right knee wasn’t going to make it any easier. She started the season with a modest goal: make the team.
“She was so excited about the season,” coach Vicki Reimler said. “She came in and she worked so hard and was so intense.”
Eckenrode played so well in tryouts she not only made the team, her teammates named her a captain.
“(I was) definitely honored,” she said. “We try to get the team to bond. Just being there for the team, being there for the girls, letting them know that we care about the underclassmen just as much as the rest of them (are responsibilities).”
The car accident caused Eckenrode’s life to take another unexpected turn, and she wasn’t there when the season started.
While recovering, Eckenrode attended a few practices but focused on getting her life back in order. She credits her parents for helping her pull through the difficult time.
“My mom was just very supportive of me,” Eckenrode said. “(Things like) making sure I was OK, if I had to go to school, did I have a ride … just making sure I was taken care of.”
Meanwhile, there was gossip among classmates as to the extent of her injury.
“I think there was a lot of rumors going around,” Eckenrode said. “Someone told me, ‘How’d they get the glass out of your head?’ I was like, ‘There was no glass in my head.’”
Back on the court
Eckenrode didn’t play volleyball again until she found herself in the middle of the Bruins’ Sept. 16 game in Fulton. She wore a clear plastic mask that protected her nose but also made peripheral vision difficult and left her feeling nauseated.
In late September, Eckenrode switched to a tighter-fitting mask that was designed for burn victims, which she will likely wear for the rest of the season. She said although the new mask helps make her peripheral vision better, it provides her nose less protection.
“If I were to get hit face-on, then I would be OK,” Eckenrode said. “But if I got hit from the side, it doesn’t really hold that much support.”
Eckenrode said she has adjusted to playing with the mask almost to the point that she isn’t conscious of it when she plays. Adjusting to the knee brace has been more difficult.
“If I move a certain way, if I lean to hard on it or make a certain movement, my knee will hurt,” she said. “So I try to be cautious of that.”
Her teammates have been supportive of her recovery. Sophomore hitter Amanda Hanson brought in a mask similar to the one worn by Jason in the movie Friday the 13th to a recent Bruins’ game to show her support. Hanson was prepared to wear the mask before first serve.
“I think the coach said it was OK, but then at the last minute, we were like, ‘No, we need to be serious,”‘ Eckenrode said. “I was like, ‘Thanks.’”
A season of adjustments
Despite the light-heartedness, this season has been a struggle for Rock Bridge (9-13-3). Eckenrode’s injury was one in a series that has hurt the Bruins. Senior hitter Ashley Schulte missed the season’s first two games with a left ankle sprain, and senior hitter Kelsey Wilkinson will miss the rest of the season after spraining her left ankle at practice Oct. 8.
The injuries have forced Reimler to shuffle the lineup, and the Bruins have found it difficult to adjust to players rotating into and out of the lineup with such regularity. Eckenrode, who splits time with senior Ashley Selby, said one of her concerns upon returning was not so much her adjusting to her teammates but rather her teammates adjusting to her.
She also said the losing has taken its toll.
“Everyone is tired of losing because we all know we’re so much better,” she said. “It’s hard to keep your head up.”
Eckenrode would be wise to keep her head up because she has plenty to look forward to. District playoffs begin Monday, and Eckenrode will graduate in June. She said she is interested in the University of Michigan or Texas A&M, although she won’t play volleyball.
For now, though, Eckenrode said she is enjoying one of the most exciting times of her life, despite the setbacks.
“It’s all meaningful,” she said. “If I didn’t like volleyball and after all the injuries, I wouldn’t play. I like being around all my friends, and getting to know all these girls I never would have known if it weren’t for volleyball, so it’s definitely worth the experience.”