With each shot striking the Marian volleyball court during Wednesday’s practice, a shout of celebration echoed through the gymnasium.
On several of those spikes, though, junior Lauren Nietz dove, attempting to keep the ball in the air for a teammate to keep the play alive.
Being a defensive specialist or libero isn’t the most glamorous job. It doesn’t draw the fans’ reaction like a well-placed kill.
Regardless, Nietz is one of the more noticeable Fillies anyway.
And it’s all because of a concussion.
Unlike her teammates, Nietz wears bright blue, foam-padded headgear. It’s become almost as symbolic of Marian as a kill by Grace Boyle or one of Abby O’Donnell’s many assists.
The helmet also is protection against a recurrence of the injury that happened in Marian’s first action of the 2013 season.
Nietz performed one of her typical dives in a match against Merion Mercy in a tournament at Bethlehem Freedom.
“I had to dive on my stomach to get the ball, and when I stuck my arm out, my head hit off the floor,” said Nietz, whose Fillies take on District 1 champion Christopher Dock in Saturday’s PIAA Class A quarterfinals at Muhlenberg High School. “It happens all of the time.”
This time, however, the pain was instant.
She said, “Immediately, I felt foggy. I
stood up and I walked over to the team because it was the last play of the game. They said I was standing there and I looked pale and kind of shaky.”
Examined by a trainer, Nietz’s day was done.
While she said the symptoms cleared in a few days, her return was gradual because she had to pass several physical tests to be cleared to return to the court.
As a result, she missed two competitions, including a long-awaited rematch against Nativity.
“We already learned about concussions before here, so I kind of knew it was serious,” she said.
Nietz first learned about protective headwear from the tournament’s trainer, but it was an idea that quickly gained traction.
“It was like kind of a joke, but then my parents thought about it and said, ‘Well, you do kind of hit your head a lot,’ ” she said.
The first idea was a padded headband provided by her parents.
“That didn’t work, and that was really ugly. I was already kind of used to it,” she said. “Then Doc (Marian head coach John Fallabel) gave me a flag football helmet, and that was really ugly.”
However, Nietz and her parents found another option online, foam padded headgear with ear flaps that attach under the chin. Resembling wrestling headgear and costing more than $80, it actually was designed for another purpose.
“What I am surprised is that football players have them over their helmets,” Fallabel said about the item’s intended use.
Able to order it in Marian’s school color, blue, Nietz had found her solution for her comfort and to Fallabel’s relief.
“You have to remember she had a bruise on her brain,” he said. “It’s a brain injury. Will that affect her long-term? Do we want her to play unprotected?”
Nietz said PIAA match officials have approved the headgear prior to each match, but it almost always draws a comment. After all, Nietz is making an unintentional fashion statement.
“Our cheering section’s funny with it,” she said of Marian’s student fans. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, nice job, Lauren. Nice helmet.’ They’ll ask me to try it on and stuff, which is fine.”
She has found some opposing fans less accepting.
“Sometimes the other schools will make fun, and everyone stares,” she said. “I don’t get mad because obviously they’re going to stare at me. It’s unusual.”
One other consequence has been the helmet as a sign of team unity.
When she leaves the court, teammates will tap her on the headgear just as football players often slap teammates on their volleyball helmets. In addition, she found fellow Fillies coming to her defense when comments occur.
“My team is like my family, and your family doesn’t really judge you,” she said, adding she was laughing with her teammates when she first tried the headgear. Now, she said, it’s a different reaction from the Fillies when others see Nietz wearing it.
She said, “(Sophomore teammate) Maureen Kloap will look at me and say, ‘Knock it off. It doesn’t matter. You’re here to play. It doesn’t matter what they think.'”
Fallabel believes the volleyball helmet is a useful way to prevent further concussions once one occurs, though he thinks mandatory use by all players would be impractical.
“A girl can get a concussion from running as fast as she can and making a sudden stop and changing directions,” he said. “You can get a concussion. That apparatus will do nothing for that.”
But he is happy Nietz can now dive for opponents’ shots with less risk.
“That’s the way she plays,” he said. “Why stop her?”
BY CHUCK CURLEY (STAFF WRITER CCURLEY@REPUBLICANHERALD.COM)
Published: November 8, 2013