Story last updated at 3:26 p.m. Thursday, October 31, 2002

Comeback kid

Kriens climbs back into volleyball after suffering broken neck

by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: sports

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Raquel Kriens is enjoying her first season playing varsity volleyball. The Homer senior missed last fall's high school season aftr breaking her neck in a car accident.  
Senior Raquel Kriens is arguably the most enthusiastic member of the Homer High School volleyball team, and she doesn't hesitate to give the reason for her emotion -- she's back!

After nearly a year's absence, Kriens has battled her way back to the volleyball court and is contributing to a highly successful Mariner season. Going into Wednesday's match with Palmer, Homer was 4-2 in Region III and 6-2 overall.

To her family, she was always the girl with the volleyball, continually bouncing and cradling the stitched leather sphere as she moved about the house.

In her own mind, she was a volleyball player, a pursuit picked up at an early age while watching her dad play in community league games in Bush Alaska. Someday, it was assumed, she would finish her varsity high school career and move on to the bigger, faster-paced college game.

Then came a bad car wreck in the summer of 2001. Kriens was a passenger in a vehicle that skidded off a Minnesota highway and tumbled end over end, rolling three or four times.

Her neck broken, Kriens' perception of herself as a volleyballer faced a serious challenge. While there was no apparent alarm over potential paralysis, doctors confirmed that she'd broken her fourth cervical vertebra and compressed the two on either side.

Her junior volleyball season, which looked to be her first as a major contributor on the varsity squad, was over before it began.

"That was a real letdown for a 16-year-old who had worked so hard to get herself into the core of the team," her father, Michael Kriens, said of the accident's aftermath. "It was very emotional for her."

The new priority became protecting her injured neck from further damage and rehabilitating physically so that she could lead a normal, active life.

Instead of looking to perfect her serving, spiking and passing skills, Kriens was focused on a new set of goals -- how to get through her daily teen-age routine while wearing a hard plastic neck brace, and how to sleep comfortably wearing a foam neck brace at night.

She figured out that she could use a towel cradled around the back of her head to physically pull herself off the pillow when she wanted to get out of bed.

Following months of rehabbing and laying low, Kriens rejoined the volleyball world last spring for the club season.

Michael Kriens said his daughter's positive attitude was the difference, though Raquel credits her recovery to her parents' unwavering support.

Club coach Paula Cook, who Michael Kriens said also battled back from a major injury, helped Raquel ease her way back into playing ball.

Raquel Kriens said at first she was incredibly sore, joining the team with almost no stamina and ball skills so eroded that they basically had to be relearned. Through an arrangement with Cook, she would check herself out of games when she began to fatigue.

"Right after the accident, I thought I was never going to walk again, let alone play volleyball," Kriens said. "But I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back and play varsity volleyball."

As the spring progressed, volleyball touches began to come easier for Kriens, and by the late summer high school preseason, she was ready to make good on her determination.

Homer varsity coach Beth Trowbridge and Kriens both said that her play was still a little tentative and her stamina was not 100 percent.

But Trowbridge said Kriens' skills were steadily improving, and she was catching up to her teammates, many of whom had a season of play at the varsity level already in hand.

Eventually, Kriens worked back into the rotation, though her playing has been limited to little more than half time due to fatigue and strategy.

Her play has continued to improve as the Mariners' season has rolled along, making her presence felt up front and along the back row.

"She's a very aggressive hitter and she can set the ball well, so she's a big asset," Trowbridge said. "She's proven to be a big spark plug for us."

As Kriens' play has become less erratic, Trowbridge has taken to inserting her for key service points. During the home-court Peninsula Challenge tournament, Kriens rattled off nine service points in a row as the Mariners rolled to a 15-8, 15-2 win over West Anchorage.

Kriens' father admits that the priorities remain a little different than they were before the accident. These days, Raquel is talking more along academic lines when it comes to college discussions. Nonetheless, he said, the Kriens family is incredibly proud of Raquel's efforts to play varsity volleyball.

"She has come back a long way," Michael Kriens said. "As a parent sitting there and watching her play, I'm proud that, after that injury, she still wanted to play and did the work necessary to play on a competitive level."

One can only guess at the emotional boost that comes from contributing to a successful team effort after overcoming so much adversity. And, of course, there's the sharing of high fives with her teammates and hearing Homer Athletic Director Chris Perk shout "The Rock! Raquel Kriens!" over the gym loud speakers when she spikes a ball during a home match.

Kriens summed it quite simply, smiling broadly:

"It's great to be back."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer