The fresh face: After waiting her turn, UB's Megan Wernette provides long-term answer offensively
Just eight games into its season, the volleyball team had lost one its best players.
Senior middle blocker Amber Hatchett tore her ACL on Sept. 12 in a match against Southern Mississippi.
“It’s heartbreaking to see it happen to her because she’s a great player and such a big part of our team, on and off the court,” said head coach Blair Brown Lipsitz. “But you immediately think of who you go to step up.”
Megan Wernette stepped up.
After playing in just two sets during the Buffalo’s first eight games, the freshman middle blocker has played in every set since Hatchett’s injury and is currently fifth on the team in kills with 63. On a team with several seniors on the roster, Wernette’s play bodes well for the future of the Bulls (3-15, 2-4 Mid-American Conference).
Her play proves the stars can be replaced and the replacements can become stars.
“Those were some really big shoes to fill,” Wernette said. “[Hatchett] is an incredible athlete and any freshman would be nervous filling in for a senior on a Division I level. But as the game went on, they just kept telling me, ‘Don’t try to be Amber, just be yourself.”’
Wernette wasn’t always a natural volleyball player despite her 6-foot-3 frame. Growing up in Naperville, Illinois, just 30 miles outside of Chicago, Wernette played soccer, track, swimming and tennis. It took a gruesome injury – a broken leg on the soccer field at a young age – to motivate her parents to suggest volleyball.
“My parents just threw me into volleyball,” Wernette said. “I was reluctant at first and tried to blow tryouts, but that didn’t work. Looking back, I’m really thankful I made the team and haven’t looked back.”
The team didn’t expect Wernette to see much playing time, especially with a plethora of experienced players already on the team like Hatchett, seniors Megan Lipski and Marissa Prinzbach and sophomore Cassie Shado. Through the first three weeks of the season, Wernette stood solely on the sidelines as she watched the Bulls through the rebuilding year.
But the match against Southern Mississippi changed that.
The then 0-7 Bulls were looking for their first win of the season against Southern Mississippi. After taking the first two sets of the match, Buffalo dropped the next two sets and Hatchett as well.
But at the same moment one season ended, another started.
Lipsitz looked to the bench and called Wernette’s number. In her first career set, Wernette didn’t register a statistic, but that wasn’t the focus that night. The focus was to gain experience to rid first-game jitters.
“I think a big part of it was getting experience,” Lipsitz said. “The college game is so different from the high school game and club, so it’s good to see her go in during a high-pressure situation. The next game she played, all the pressure was off so she can focus on her game.”
It was shaky at first, but it didn’t take long after that.
After two scoreless matches, Wernette recorded her first kills of her Buffalo career against Canisius and finished with four kills. After two weeks of steady production, Wernette took another step: becoming a focal point for her team’s comeback.
Against Toledo on Sept. 26, the Bulls lost the first set and trailed 15-13 in the second. Lipsitz called a timeout to adjust her game plan.
The Bulls came out and scored six straight points and won the set 25-19 and ultimately won the match 3-1.
“Everybody’s excited to win a game,” Lipsitz said. “I think Meg stepped up in that game particularly. I think a big part of this is we don’t need Meg to be Amber. We need Meg to be Meg. And I think she’s done a really great job at what she can. Every time she’s on the court and every time she’s at practice, she’s been working really hard to make herself the best person she could be.”
It was Wernette that was critical to the comeback, as she scored two points in the comeback and added two more kills in the third set, en route to a career-high 12 kills. Wernette looked back at the performance as a moment where “the fun” came back into the game.
“I’m not as nervous anymore,” Wernette said. “Now it’s just back to having fun. It’s a calming presence to have others of more experience on the court … Everyone is behind me. This is what I came to school for.”
Wernette’s is one of a host of freshman contributing to the team. Along with fellow freshman Valisha Watkins, Abby Beecher and Raven Jordan, Wernette may have potential for the future.
It’s the different abilities and the different talents “brought to the table” that Wernette likes about her fellow freshmen.
“Everyone has something new to bring,” Wernette said. “We’re are all physical players, which is what we bring to the game. The seniors are more technical, but we bring the physical and energetic part … the future is bright and the goal is going up from here. This class is going to continue to grow and be smarter from the early.”
Reuben Wolf is a contributing writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.