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Playing Hurt

This Season Has Been a Bad One for Injuries to Girls' Volleyball Players, With Ankle and Shoulder Problems at the Top of the List


Sharon Shelton's shoulder hurt, and that's bad news for a volleyball player, especially for a hard-swinging outside hitter.

The pain was great and constant--throbbing when she wasn't playing, worse when she was on the court--but Shelton played on last spring for her club team, Long Beach-based Asics Nova.

"I didn't tell anyone," said Shelton, a senior at Ocean View High. "You're supposed to be tough. It's just pain. I'm used to playing with little pains.

"I didn't realize it was something serious until it was too late."

Shelton is still paying for her mistake. Despite resting her shoulder for most of the last six months, she still hasn't recovered and is sitting out her final season at defending state Division III champion Ocean View.

Shelton is one of at least seven top Orange County girls' volleyball players who have had their seasons ended or limited this fall.

* Mater Dei outside hitter Lauren Warner is out for the season after surgery for a herniated disk in her back.

* Fountain Valley outside hitter Natalie Snowden is playing with a sore right shoulder that forced her to hit left-handed early in the season.

* Marina outside hitter Katie Keating recently recovered from two severe sprained ankles that she hurt simultaneously during a warmup drill last month.

* Esperanza outside hitter Julia Rex is playing despite an ankle she sprained the first day of practice and aggravated last month.

* Esperanza middle blocker Laura St. John also has been playing with sprained ankles.

* Last week, Corona del Mar outside hitter Jamie Brownell rolled her ankle during the Sea Kings' loss to Newport Harbor but is trying to get ready for tonight's match against Irvine.

Volleyball is a high-impact sport, so it's no surprise that players suffer injuries. The game has become more athletic in the last decade, and hitters flying at the net to slam the ball must eventually come down. Sometimes they land on teammates' feet. Ankles are sprained. Knees twisted. Fingers jammed.

Every sport has its typical injuries. Cross-country has shin splints. Football and soccer have knee injuries. Volleyball has sprained ankles.

But some observers fear certain girls' volleyball players are being stretched too thin, leading to overuse injuries.

Boys are not immune to such injuries but few play the sport as continuously as the girls do. Like many competitive youth sports, girls' volleyball has become a year-round pursuit. In the last 15 years, the number of junior club teams in Southern California has grown 10-fold to the current level of about 400.

Among the factors fueling the growth is the quest for college scholarships. Women's volleyball is offered by 292 NCAA Division I institutions, which are allowed 12 scholarships yearly. The Division II numbers are 271 programs and eight scholarships.

Any way you do the math, that's a lot of money to chase.

And Orange County is producing more than its share of collegiate players. One example: In a recent Ivy League match between Princeton and Brown, 10 of the 24 players on the rosters were from the Orange County Volleyball Club.

Looking to replicate that success, many players--often with encouragement from their parents--are deciding to give up other athletic pursuits to specialize on volleyball.

The decision has consequences, said Dr. Alan Beyer, a Newport Beach orthopedic surgeon and the team doctor at University High.

"As soon as you do the same thing year round, that's when you have problems," Beyer said. "And it's something we've always seen in swimming and gymnastics, which have traditionally been year-round sports. But now we're starting to see it in volleyball.

"And the players who are better at the sport paradoxically are also the ones who are taxing their bodies at a higher level, so they're the ones who are more likely to get a repetitive-use injury."

One of the most common and potentially serious of these injuries is to the shoulder, Beyer said. Girls tend to have loose shoulder joints and without proper stretching and strengthening exercises, injuries are likely. The rotator cuff--four muscles that hold the humerus bone in the shoulder socket--usually goes first.

"They build up their power muscles," Beyer said, "but don't adequately strengthen their rotator cuff and that's why they are starting to get a lot more shoulder problems."

Steve Nicholas, a Fullerton physical therapist, sees quite a few volleyball injuries. He also has two daughters--Sunny, a freshman at Baylor, and Stevie, a junior at Sunny Hills--who are standout players.

"The tendency among volleyball-playing girls at the high school level is for them to be tall, hyper-elastic and not very well-muscled," Nicholas said. "I think sometimes they are predisposed to injury.

"Those who excel go directly from high school to club, and very few of the programs have enough time to allow these girls to cross-train and what do they do? They jump a zillion times a day and swing at the ball a zillion times a day."

Club Teams Criticized

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