Donnelly’s final act with Illinois volleyball
November 27, 2017
For college athletes, nothing is scarier than a serious injury. Just ask senior libero Brandi Donnelly.
After sitting on the sidelines for almost a month, Illinois’ defensive cornerstone jumped back into action Nov. 1 against Northwestern. Donnelly hadn’t seen the court since the second set against the Purdue Boilermakers, when she was escorted out of Huff Hall with ice wrapped around her right knee.
In the month that she was off the court, she went through a surgical procedure and a short stint with rehabilitation. The injury was classified as a bucket tear of the meniscus, although it was not disclosed until after she began playing again.
According to Donnelly, she had two options. One was to cut her volleyball career short. The other: give her senior season longevity and a chance to see her team into the NCAA tournament.
“I had a little fear, at first, because I could have decided to repair it or get it cut out,” Donnelly said. “I decided to just get it cut out, because then the recovery is a lot shorter, and I knew I would be able to come back.”
Repairing her injury would have stretched out recovery time to anywhere from six months to a year – too long for a senior during her final season. Dealing with chronic knee pain was a tradeoff Donnelly was willing to take on to get back to the game -— and the team —she loved this season.
“I knew I would probably have knee pain anyway the rest of my life, so I just decided to go through with the procedure,” Donnelly said.
As she awaited clearance from her injury, Donnelly said she had to get comfortable watching Illini volleyball from afar. Donnelly has been a starter for the Illini since her very first game in the uniform. She had never sat out a game until this injury.
But she embraced the new opportunity with open arms, and as Donnelly’s knee began to improve, so did her relationships with her teammates.
“I did feel a little stir crazy, but at the same time, after I knew that I was coming back, I knew I just had to be patient,” Donnelly said. “It kind of gave me a chance to sit back and watch the team and help in other ways. It kind of made me get to know the teammates that aren’t always on the court a little bit better for sure.”
Head coach Chris Tamas said that improvement can happen on and off the court. For Donnelly, it was about making the most of both.
“I think we’re looking for constant improvement, and sometimes those situations, as unfortunate as they are, lead you to connect with teammates better,” Tamas said. “I think that’s a byproduct of that, and it’s good she’s thinking about that. We always challenge them to become a better team and better teammates.”
Since her return, she’s tallied a season-high 32 digs and 10 assists against No. 7 Minnesota on Nov. 18. Donnelly helped lead her team to a 3-1 victory, the Illini’s first upset against the Badgers since 2014.
Her journey as an Illini started earlier than typical recruits. Donnelly graduated after her fall semester during her senior year of high school. The Williamsville High School alumna yielded a double-edged sword in her early arrival and the only member of her recruiting class.
“I only went to summer camps before my senior year in high school,” Donnelly said. “I actually graduated early, so it fell about six months before I was coming to campus. I went to camp by myself, but it was good since I got to talk to the girls and meet everyone who I’d be playing with.”
Since her freshman season in 2014, Donnelly has an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention and seven Big Ten weekly honors under her belt. That includes being named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team as well as receiving Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times in her rookie season.
For Tamas, there is no question that Donnelly has made the court a better place to play in her four years. Having only stood at the helm of the team for one season, Tamas said it’s still clear that the Illini’s only senior is an important keystone.
“I think she adds comfort ability of having her on the court,” Tamas said. “She’s an exceptional athlete, so we have to cover a lot of ground when she’s not there.”
But as her final season in orange and blue begins to come to a close, Donnelly is looking toward new horizons.
According to the libero, she is planning on continuing her academic career at Illinois. She said she has her eyes set on a master’s degree in advertising or recreation, sports and tourism, and is in the process of applying.
A life without volleyball is going to be a change. However, Donnelly said she still plans on keeping a close eye on her team.
“Yeah, I think I’ll miss it a lot,” Donnelly said, “because I’m the only one in my grade. So I don’t have this, ‘Oh, all the other seniors are graduating, too.’ So this spring, for sure, I think I’ll still hang around the team a lot.”