There was a kinetic energy on Oct. 19 at Kelly Walsh High School for the 2017 VolleyBowl.
The annual rivalry match typically brings a lot of excitement, but this was something else. Kelly Walsh students required a movie theater-style rope ticker to stay off the court and the Natrona County fans added to the festivities with glittery signs.
On the Natrona County bench sat junior Grace DuBay. Unlike every previous match this year, DuBay was on the bench in uniform. After months of waiting, she was ready to go.
Down 10-8 in the first set of the match, the junior standout subbed in with a raucous roar from the Natrona County faithful. After missing the last eight months following knee surgery she sustained at the end of the basketball season, DuBay was finally playing.
“It feels amazing to be back on the court with my best friends,” she said afterwards. “The past eight months have been really tough but my teammates and my coaches, (Physical Therapist) Nancy Robertson and Dr. (Daniel) White have got me here, and I’m just beyond thankful and I feel so blessed.”
The timetable for her return was hazy at the start of the season. Her teammates were excited but her head coach seemed less than sure she would be 100 percent before season’s end.
It wasn’t until the Monday before the VolleyBowl that she received her release, medically clearing her to return to sports.
“So I got to practice only Tuesday and Wednesday with the team, but I’ve been traveling with them so immediately we just felt right together,” DuBay said. “Yeah, it worked out really well.”
DuBay was a surprising sophomore last year, finishing seventh in Class 4A in kills (3.2 per match), second in digs (5.7) and first in passing (2.46 ratio).
She admitted to feeling nervous when she subbed in for her first match of the season. The cacophony of cheers only added to the anticipation.
But once the first ball was in play she fell back into a rhythm. She remained focused when the ball was in play but her smile was too much to hide after Filly points.
She played in all three sets of the VolleyBowl with a sleeve and brace covering the majority of her right leg. None of that encumbered her will to dive for digs or threw a hitch in her jump-serve.
Arguably the biggest regular-season match on the schedule and DuBay wanted to play in it, regardless of how much equipment she needed to protect her right knee.
“They’re one of the best teams in the state and I was a little nervous you know,” she said, “but it was a great team to come back for. I can see what I need to work on for regionals and what we can (work on) as a team.
“It just a really great game for me to evaluate after eight months of being a little rusty.”
Her return comes just in time for the Fillies (18-13, 6-4) to play their best game. Senior Kristy Dick has led the charge alongside fellow seniors Bre Kelly, Kylie Watson and Emilie Fittje.
Natrona County is just two wins from the state tournament and the return of DuBay provides an extra lift going into the two-day tournament.
The Fillies were on a five-match winning streak going into the VolleyBowl. The junior outside hitter believes the Fillies can carry that confidence from the winning streak into regionals, which Natrona County hosts.
“I just think that we’re about to hit our stride going into regionals and we’ve got to work really hard on this upcoming week on defense,” DuBay said, “we’ve got to talk to each other a little bit more, but overall I think that we’re going to click at the right time.”
Natrona County, the No. 3 seed, opens regional action against No. 6 Jackson at 11 a.m. on Friday.