CHICAGO HEIGHTS | Marian Catholic coach Ryan Summers said his team could never have achieved its fourth-place finish in the Class 3A state tournament if any of his players had been injured during the postseason run.
It certainly would not have happened without Amber Clay.
In September, the Spartans got a taste of what it would be like to be without their sophomore outside hitter. During a match in the Rich East tournament, Clay crumpled to the ground and let out a sound that Summers later would describe as a howl. Summers said his initial thought was that Clay had broken her right ankle.
The injury, incurred when a St. Francis player landed on her foot, was actually sprained ligaments. When Clay's doctor initially looked at the swelling around that ankle, he told the St. John resident she might be out four to six weeks.
"I don't think that will work," Clay responded.
Clay, who had never been injured before, now prides herself on being a fast healer. Within a week she had gone from crutches to the court, where she began the arduous process of rebuilding her ankle and, in turn, the season.
As Clay's health improved, so too did the fortunes of the Spartans, who had lost their fifth consecutive match in that St. Francis match but six weeks later were playing among the final four teams in the Class 3A state tournament.
For Clay's all-around play and the go-to finisher on the Spartans squad, she has been named The Times 2011 Player of the Year.
"She probably reminds me the most of Amber Fryer, and not just because they are both named Amber and both have been named (The Times) Player of the Year," said Summers, who has coached Bloom Township's outside hitter in club volleyball. "Neither acts like they have a chip on their shoulder. They both have a great attitude, are athletic, and hit the ball extremely well."
Despite missing that week, Clay finished the year with 311 kills, 40 blocked shots and 35 service aces for the Spartans.
"I don't know if I technically improved as a player that much as it was that I really started to utilize what I had been taught," Clay said of her season. "It finally started to click."
Summers identified a flaw in Clay's hitting motion early in the season, and worked on keeping Clay from dropping her shoulder. Summers said Clay worked hard at all aspects of her game throughout the season, and not just as a finisher.
"Now she probably gets more upset with herself if she misses a dig than a kill," Summers said.
Clay finished the year on a high note, tallying match-high kill totals in both matches at the Marian Catholic Sectional and a season-best 18 kills in the Class 3A semifinal loss to Marian Central. She said her ankle did not return to 100 percent until after the playoffs began.
"Playing at state was awesome; I wouldn't trade that experience for anything," said Clay, who is being recruited by Division I schools, including Michigan. "I feel the way our team came together at the end of the season was a big surprise. Having our team grow and pull through like that was amazing."
Clay recalled how the interest in the volleyball team grew at school the deeper the team went into the playoffs. The Spartan program, which won just 10 games in 2010, will not sneak up on anybody next year, especially with Clay in the lineup.
"I remember getting ready to play Chicago Christian and thinking, 'Man, these girls won state last year, they are going to be good,'" Clay said. "That's what people are going to think about us next year, and that is going to feel good."