By Olivia Gentry
Under the lights of Towson University’s SECU Arena, Ally Townsend would prepare to make her first career start as a libero – or at least, that’s what she thought would happen on that late November night. Townsend was “really excited to get the chance” to wear the exclusive, different-colored jersey in Towson’s last regular game of the season and senior night against Northeastern University.
But Townsend would never even step foot on the court.
Townsend would face another setback before this unfortunate accident.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA had moved the 2020 fall season to the following spring of 2021. This meant that January 2021 was the new Division I preseason. With the start of a new COVID season came many protocols. Like a lot of schools across the country, players had to take their temperatures and COVID tests daily.
At Towson, it was a requirement for players to fill out COVID forms by 7 a.m. each morning. These forms were essential, as no form meant no practice. Towson’s volleyball coaching staff told players they would have to sit out a match set for every missed form. “It got to a point where most of the team was going to have to sit out a set,” Townsend recalled.
The staff revised the rule and allowed players to instead run a pancake drill in lieu of the missed sets. This alternative drill seemed to be a great solution for when regular season rolled around, but would prove to be a detrimental setback for Townsend.
As Townsend was running and diving toward the first 10-foot line of the Unitas fieldhouse’s volleyball court in a preseason practice, she felt pretty good. “My transition back from the first line felt pretty nice,” Townsend said. But as she went to dive and stick her arm out to complete the pancake, her hand stopped and her body kept going.
Her right shoulder had subluxed, meaning it had popped out and gone back in.
“What the hell just happened?” Townsend wondered.
As she lay curled in a ball, her teammates huddled around her in concern. She couldn’t quite give them direct answers to their questions, as she was trying to figure out what had happened herself.
Townsend’s trainers scheduled an MRI for her, but in the meantime she was not allowed to practice. She opened the results of her MRI in a patient portal but the medical lingo made it difficult to get a clear sense of what was going on. As she waited for the team’s orthopedic doctor, she realized that her shoulder felt good.
“I didn’t have any pain and just wanted to get back on the court and play again,” she said. She was confident that it was a slight tweak and wasn’t going to need surgery. She even got dressed for practice, wearing the same practice shirt that put her in uniform with the rest of her healthy teammates, and brought her shoes with her to “go straight up to practice and just hop right in,” she said.
But Townsend would not hop into practice. The doctor informed her that she had suffered a grade 2 labrum tear and strongly advised that she have surgery to protect the health of her shoulder in the future. Townsend contemplated not having the surgery. Neither she, nor her coaches, wanted her to have it. Instead, they wanted to see her compete within the 30-by-60 -foot lines of the volleyball court.
In the end, her family and athletic trainers convinced her to go ahead with the surgery Townsend underwent the surgery a week later.
She spent the first week of her recovery at home in Hummelstown, PA, on the couch, with her arm in a sling and under heavy sedatives. Her older brother, Tim, who played soccer at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, remembers driving her around to get food and hanging out in the car. He tried his best to “help her with whatever she needed to do around the house,” said Tim, who was no stranger to injury, having suffered his own ankle injury in high school and tearing his ACL at Pitt. Tim knew that “the recovery process was so new to her” but also knew his sister was ready “to take it on the chin”.
Townsend returned to Towson right around the time that the team started playing preseason games again. “I really wanted to still be a part of the team and have a role,” Townsend said. Her coaches also wanted her to stay involved. They sent her to help the first-year players learn the complex defense the program ran. During games she would take serve-receive statistics, which she thought would be really good for her. But instead she found it “to be really terrible,” she said.
“It really kind of sucked,” Townsend said about her new role. She didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be as she sat on the sidelines and watched her team play.
“I thought it would be easy,” said Townsend, who had watched her brother be “so strong” as he recovered from his ACL injury. “I had seen so many other people just do it and get through the recovery process.” She figured that hers would be a “piece of cake” considering it required significantly less recovery time.
Townsend appreciated her coaches wanting to keep her a part of the program, but “felt isolated.” She was no longer on the court or even cheering on the sidelines, but instead was sitting on the bench with a laptop, which was not the role she had envisioned for herself. “My mental health definitely took a toll,” she said.
Her support system proved a great counterbalance for this tough time in Townsend’s life. Her family, friends, teammates and especially her athletic trainer helped her return to play.
With the assistance of her athletic trainer and Townsend’s relentless time spent in the athletic training and physical therapy room, she was able to debut after four-and-a-half months — beating the intended six-month recovery process.
Although her comeback was earlier than what was advised, Townsend’s mind was set.
“I was not not waiting any longer,” Townsend said.
In her first practice back, she had some hesitation and fear, until she touched that very first ball – any anxiety melted away.
The team traveled to its annual Morgan State University Tournament, where Townsend would revisit her excitement for the game of volleyball. The Tigers played the United States Naval Academy, and Townsend remembers just how fun that first game back was. She said she “wasn’t afraid” of the uncertainty that had once intruded her mind.
As the season was closing, that November night would start a new challenge to Ally’s season.
Her mom, Lori, had flown in to surprise Ally for the Colonial Athletic Association’s conference final, which the Tigers were hosting. Ally could definitely tell that something was up when she went into the arena’s hallway. So when she found Tim hiding in the corner, she wasn’t totally shocked. Tim described the surprise as a “cool moment” between the two.
As introductions began, and she and her teammates were lined up shoulder to shoulder, Townsend stepped in rhythm with one teammate. As she leapt in excitement, her foot came down and collided with the top of her teammate’s foot, twisting Townsend’s ankle enough to fracture it. Right before Townsend’s foot met the floor, her teammate grabbed both of her arms and yanked her back to her feet. As she did so, Townsend felt the uneasy sensation of her shoulder moving out of its socket: a feeling that she was no stranger to.
Townsend’s parents were sitting in the stands with her brother. They looked up and saw that something was definitely wrong with Ally.
They saw her getting her ankle checked out at the athletic trainer’s table, but had no idea the extent of her injuries. They saw her tearful realization that she was not going to be able to make her first start.
“That’s when we knew something bad really happened and that she had hurt herself,” Tim remembers.
The athletic trainer taped Townsend’s ankle tightly but Townsend said “the worst part of it was the silence in the gym.” Townsend tried to jog it off in the tunnel outside the arena, however, her trainer saw her favoring the ankle and immediately pulled her from the game. She then went to cheer with her teammates on the bench, but her ankle was just too uncomfortable. She transitioned over to the seats on the bench to give her ankle a break. She leaned back and put her arms criss-crossed behind her head. She soon felt her shoulder go with the gravity of her body, once again reliving the familiar sensation.
Tim came down, gave her a hug and let Ally know that he was there if she needed him. “And he was right; I did need him,” Ally said. “I was really happy that he was there.” Tim and the athletic trainer helped Ally to the Towson locker room to give her some space to “freak out for a second,” Townsend said.
Townsend and her athletic trainer got really close after her second injury, “I basically lived [in the trainer’s room],” said Townsend, who went to the AT room three-to-four times a day, four days a week for months. “I definitely skipped a few classes.”
Townsend worked her way back to the court, tape and all, at around two months after her second injury. She remembers an emotional moment with her head coach at Towson. “He said, I’m going to play you as if you don’t have that cast on your leg.’”
While Townsend didn’t literally have a cast, she said this was his way of saying that he believed in her. Her teammates also reinforced their belief in her, and created a special atmosphere for Townsend’s second return to play.
“Ally has definitely grown from these experiences,” Tim said. “She has a wiser perspective that can definitely help younger girls.
Townsend underwent her second shoulder surgery and graduated as a junior from Towson with a degree in Psychology. She is now the starting libero for the Springfield College Pride. She started 27 matches and accumulated 505 digs in a single season for the Pride in 2022. She also received multiple NEWMAC defensive player of the week awards, in addition to becoming an All-American.
In 2023, Townsend has been the defensive anchor for a Springfield team that has won 20 of its first 21 games. Townsend is leading the team once again in digs, with 304 through Oct. 18, and ranks second in assists and service aces.
“Ally’s toughness and passion is what I have appreciation for,” said Springfield College women’s volleyball head coach, Moira Long. “She doesn’t like it when I limit her.”
Townsend looks back with pride on her undergraduate career at Towson.
“I’m proud of myself for pushing through those games,” she said.
Photo courtesy of Springfield College