Together, Alex Johnson and Jillian Lane want to carry the Westlake Village Westlake girls' volleyball team to the Marmonte League championship this season -- but without breaking their backs trying.
Each has already endured stress fractures of the lower spine -- Johnson last season and Lane the year before -- that prevented them from carrying much of anything, let alone their team.
"The exact same thing happened to both of us in our sophomore years. What are the odds?" Lane said.
Now healthy, at full strength and in the lineup together for the first time, Lane and Johnson give Westlake a formidable 1-2 punch. The Warriors (1-1) beat Oxnard Rio Mesa on Tuesday and face West Hills Chaminade in another nonleague match at 6 tonight.
Ultimately, the two hope to spark a run at a league championship that has eluded the Warriors the past two seasons, ending a previous streak of eight consecutive titles, from 1995 to 2002.
"I wouldn't want to play us," second-year Coach Ernest Rittenhouse said. "I don't see any rotations [where] we're weak. It's made it kind of exciting that we're finally going to have those girls on the court at the same time."
It has taken some doing.
Lane, a 5-foot-11 senior outside hitter, suffered a stress fracture in her lower back in 2003 and missed nearly all of that season because of the injury. Johnson, a 6-1 junior outside hitter, was laid up with the same problem, sitting out all but a few matches in 2004.
Each took five months off from volleyball to rest before returning to the court.
"They sort of related to each other's injuries," Rittenhouse said. "They were determined rehabbers."
The duo benefited from the lengthy recuperation, as well as supervised workouts at a local gym that Rittenhouse had instituted upon his arrival at Westlake. "I don't feel any pain at all anymore because my back is so much stronger now," Johnson said. "I just keep on doing everything now, because I don't feel afraid of anything."
Stress fractures, caused by repetitive trauma and overuse, are most common in the legs and feet, but may also occur in the spine or other bones. The problem often arises from significant amounts of running and jumping, making cross-country, volleyball and basketball common culprits, according Dr. Dwite Dahms, a Thousand Oaks-based orthopedic surgeon who works with the Westlake football team and is an assistant team doctor with the U.S. men's national soccer team.
"There's always going to be a certain number of them that are going to happen sporadically," Dahms said. "But generally if there are two or three kids, or several of them, getting them, then you probably need to look at the training because something's wrong."
Lane and Johnson, both of whom first felt pain during club volleyball season, blamed their injuries on their own twisted, contorted hitting styles, and their drive to play as much as possible.
"It's either volleyball or school," Johnson said. "I have no time for anything else."
Those involved in both club and high school play face a hectic, nearly year-round schedule that lapses only from late July to mid-August.
Veteran club coach Gene Selznick, who has guided club teams that have included Lane and Johnson, concedes that constant, intense competition is the norm. That's why top athletes play.
But club teams typically do not have designated team doctors or trainers, so the prevention of injuries is the way to go, with coaches teaching correct form and players putting it into practice.
"It's called trying to change bad habits, that's what you call it," Selznick said. "That's the whole key -- trying to get them to use their bodies the right way."
Lane, the Warriors' kill leader and most valuable player last season, and Johnson are doing just that.
"I'm not worried about it now, since I hit differently," said Lane, who has straightened her leap and now relies more on her arm swing than bending her back or contorting her body to spike the ball. "It's more correct now, and everything's fine. No problems."
Johnson tried physical therapy, and even chiropractic and acupuncture treatments, in addition to taking time off, to get healthy.
"I couldn't believe it would happen to me. It was hard, especially because volleyball is my passion," said Johnson, who was introduced to the sport in junior high and liked it enough to give up karate, in which she had already earned a black belt.
"I'm just really happy I can play this year," she said. "Not playing last season just made me love it even more. I couldn't imagine not playing."
The Warriors, fourth-place finishers in the Marmonte League last season and third-place finishers in 2003, are glad their top attackers are back.
"I think we all just wondered, 'Wow, what's going on?' " said Westlake junior setter Kelsey Kaehler. "It was disappointing, but I think that we all knew in the back of our heads that this year would be better."
Lane can only hope so. "All together, it was just a really bad experience. I don't ever want to go through it again," she said.
"I knew someday I would be back, but that was a constant fear for me. I was always afraid I wouldn't be."
The injuries did do one positive thing. The Warriors have learned not to take anything for granted.
"They value the health they have now," Rittenhouse said. "We'll take things a day at a time. We don't want to think too far ahead because you never know what's going to happen. We've certainly found that out the last couple of years here."