No place like home

It took two years to get back on the court, but for Sable Staller it was all worth it


Sable Staller calls the volleyball court her “second home.”

It is one of the few places she feels comfortable when she’s away from her Russiaville, Indiana childhood house. Since middle school, she learned to love the game – all of the facets, competition and rules that are entailed. Perhaps her most important lesson was resilience. No one wants to be separated from his or her home. Sable Staller is no exception.

Last August, Staller leapt in the air and spiked the ball down onto Lehigh’s half of the court to bring the score to 16-14. It was the volleyball team’s first set of the 2014 season.

For Buffalo, it was just another point in one set of a match. For Staller, it was a homecoming. It was Staller’s first point since her freshman season more than two years prior to that.

After missing the previous two seasons with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and lateral meniscus, Staller returned to the court for the Bulls this season, played in all 32 matches and ranked fifth on the team with 143 kills. Despite not playing for two years, Staller was one of Buffalo’s key players in its first Mid-American Conference Tournament appearance since 2010.

“Anyone could’ve shut it down there, but she kept pushing,” said Steve Staller, her father.

In her Russiaville childhood home, Steve remembered an energetic and active Staller playing every sport she could. From ballet and other dance classes, to T-ball and softball, Staller kept herself busy with competition. As soon as Staller started playing volleyball, she became attached to it.

“Volleyball was different. I can tell, her mother can tell, I think even Sable knew that this sport gravitated to her a bit more than the others,” Steve said. “She got into it around the seventh grade, and I don’t remember her doing much else since.”

Staller and her family realized that she needed to improve her game to play at the college level and she wasn’t going to do it in Russiaville. At the age of 16, Sable joined the Asics Munciana Skyhawks club volleyball team.

The combination of playing on her high school team and club team helped Staller improve as a player, but she always felt the travel team helped her more.

“I loved playing in high school but playing for my travel team was better for me,” Staller said. “It allowed me to face people who were on my level, better than me and players similar to me. It was fun and it allowed me to get better. That’s the only way you can get better, I think.”

Staller’s game improved not only because of talent she faced, but also because of Kevin Lane, her travel coach. Lane helped Staller become a better server, leader and helped improve her ability to attack the ball.

“I remember meeting her six years ago and thought she had all the physical tools,” Lane said. “She was a tall, rangy kid. Solid on both sides of the ball and offered much versatility to the team. Being new to the game, Sable was a blank canvas and it really allowed us to fix the small hitches in her game and she really blossomed her final season with us.”

After winning First-Team All-Conference in 2009 and 2010 and claiming two MVP awards in high school, Staller decided to play volleyball at Buffalo over schools like East Tennessee, Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Loyola.

Staller was of the up-and-coming freshman on the 2011 team. On a team full of underclassmen, Staller finished second among freshmen in sets played (52), digs (66), and was third with 73 kills. Staller seemed poised to take a step forward and contribute more in her sophomore campaign.

“Sable was going to be important for our team,” said former Buffalo volleyball coach Todd Kress. “I remember Sable’s game being so smooth, so I really thought I could play her at either outside hitter position, and that versatility was going to be huge for us, and for her in her sophomore season.”

After years of success on the court, she was about to begin her hardest battle off of it.

In the summer between her freshman and sophomore seasons, Staller and some of her Buffalo teammates worked a UB summer volleyball camp for young girls. While working the camp, they would usually play a game of campers vs. counselors. Staller went up for a kill, but she slipped on a wet spot on the floor.

“I remember sitting there in disbelief,” Staller said. “I honestly didn’t move, not because of the pain, because I didn’t want to believe that it happened.”

Staller dealt with injuries before – she received a minor shoulder surgery at the end of her freshman season – but this injury proved to be more serious.

“The doctors repaired my ACL, MCL and cut out my meniscus, so I’m currently without half of my meniscus,” Staller said.

Steve felt helpless when he heard about Sable’s injury over the phone.

“It was tough for me because I wasn’t there,” Steve said. “Being 50,00 miles away and getting a phone call that your daughter is hurt made me feel a bit helpless … it’s tough knowing that your daughter was in pain and you weren’t right there right away to console her.”

Usually, an ACL tear takes between six to 10 months to recover, depending on the severity of the tear. But with MCL and the lateral meniscus tears in addition to the ACL, it’s an entirely different timetable. Staller’s estimated recovery was more than a year.

Former UB assistant athletic trainer Jo Gundrum helped Staller through her first year after the surgery. During that time, Gundrum considered Staller’s rehabilitation a “success so far” but knew that her body would take additional time to heal because of the additional surgeries on her knee.

The Buffalo trainers put Staller through a “prehab,” allowing her to control the swelling and pain in the knee, restore and maintain natural motion, develop muscle strength. Most importantly, they prepared her for surgery and life after surgery.

“The ‘prehab’ and rehab was really painful,” Staller said. “We did things like working on my quadriceps and my hamstrings, but the toughest part was actually bending my knee. It was toughest because my knee was hard and it often led to swelling early in the process.”

Staller remembers “the comeback was slower than expected.” She thought there was a “chance” she could player her junior season in 2013 but ultimately did not.

“I just wasn’t at 100 percent,” Staller said. “The rehab was a tough process, and focusing on just that pushed me back a bit. I wanted to be at my best when I made my return, and as the season grew closer and closer, I just knew that I wasn’t at my best.”

As Sable has made her return to the court this season, her father is happy to see her hard work and contributions to the team.

“Sable continues to make us proud every day,” Steve said. “Not only did she comeback and start playing well, but she did that and continued her school. Thanks to [head coach Reed Sunahara] for giving her a chance to earn her spot on the team.”

Sunahara had experienced his own devastating injury during his collegiate volleyball career. A broken leg from a motorcycle accident caused Sunahara to miss his senior season for UCLA.

“I was rooting for her to come back and play,” Sunahara said. “Overall, she’s been a pleasure to have on the team and a pleasure to coach. She worked her butt off for this team, and she’s been coming around off her injuries. Previously, she had some limitations, but now, she seems to be getting back to 100 percent.”

In her last game of her college career, Staller finished with a team-high eight kills against Albany.

After two inactive seasons, Sable returned to the Buffalo volleyball team this season and was contributed at the outside hitter. The team finished with a 15-17 record. Staller finished her senior season with 143 kills and 119 digs and played in all 32 games for the Bulls this season.

The hardest part of her previous two years wasn’t the recovery.

The hard part was being away from her second home.