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Taking Pains To Play

Plass Postpones Back Surgery to Set Up Pepperdine


MALIBU — Melissa Plass can barely talk.

Her mouth is drier than hot sand and her head is foggier than the Bay Area, but the flu-like symptoms that have invaded her body are the least of her worries.

There are days when she cannot get out of bed because of severe back pain. Days where every step is a battle. Days where she has to go outside and breathe in the surroundings to remember that her efforts are worth it.

Plass, 20, plays volleyball for Pepperdine, which is hosting a four-team NCAA regional playoff this weekend.

By definition, the junior setter should be robust and healthy because she plays a position that demands fleet feet, baby-soft hands and fiery leadership.

But in August 1999, Plass was teaching at a summer camp when her left leg went numb for a few minutes, a condition frequently attributed to a pinched nerve in the back.

An MRI revealed a degenerative disk and a condition called spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the lumbar that causes compression of nerve roots.

X-rays also showed two benign spinal cysts.

Surgery would eventually be needed, she was told, but she played through relatively minor pain last season and was an All-West Coast Conference selection.

Her condition steadily worsened, however, and an MRI last month detailed further aggravation in her back.

Surgery became more of a requirement than an option, though Plass has continued to put off the inevitable.

"I'm going to try to wait it out," she said, despite times when watching TV is eminently more appealing than a three-hour practice. "I'm only 20. I'd rather wait until I'm 40 if I have to [have surgery]."

At times, it's difficult. Other times, it's unbearable.

"The kid's pretty beat up," Pepperdine Coach Nina Matthies said. "It's pain tolerance and it's getting to the point where it's unbelievable."

Plass bottomed out against UCLA on Nov. 7, feeling a jolt in her back every time she landed after jumping in the third game.

Plass sat out the next three matches.

"I wanted to go for the ball, but my body stopped me," she said. "It's like, 'You can't.' It tightened up and I couldn't move."

After the UCLA match, she consulted a physical therapist, Amelia Adamczyk, who helped strengthen Plass' back muscles.

Through stretching and deep-tissue massage, Plass has felt stronger but probably won't play Friday in a first-round match against Fairfield in the NCAA tournament.

If the Waves (23-6) advance, Plass and Paola Rodriguez will likely share time at setter Saturday against Kansas State or Loyola-Chicago.

Matthies hasn't ruled out playing Plass for the first two games and spelling her for a game or two while Plass rides a stationary bike.

"We're going to try something new this weekend," Matthies said. "A lot of basketball players do it, so we figured why can't we do it?"

It's a question Plass constantly faces. And continues to answer.

She can do it.



at Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse

First round, Friday

* Loyola-Chicago (22-8) vs. Kansas State (20-8), 5 p.m.

* Pepperdine (23-6) vs. Fairfield (26-6), 7 p.m.

Second round, Saturday

* Winners play at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $15 adults, $6 seniors/students, $4 children for both nights; $10 adults, $5 seniors/students, $4 children for either night.

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