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By Isaac Trotter|For the Press
As the Blue Ridge Lady Knights volleyball team hosted their fourth regional championship in as many years last November, senior Jessica Gilbert seemed to be on top of the world.
As a starting setter, she helped the team tie the record for the most wins in a single season at Blue Ridge. Gilbert and her teammates needed just one win to advance to the Sectional Championship game and set the win record.
In the opening set of the crucial game against St. Anthony, Gilbert leaped to attempt a block. As she tried to land, her right knee buckled and she fell awkwardly to the floor.
“She just landed wrong and she was on the ground just crying,” teammate Hannah Brackenhoff said. “Everything just went downhill from there.”
The following day, the doctors confirmed that Gilbert had torn her ACL and her meniscus — rendering her knee essentially immobile. In that moment, the three-sport star realized her high school sports career was likely over.
“Some tears came to my eyes when I heard the news,” Gilbert said. “ I was just stunned because this was my life. I’ve played every sport and then to have that taken away was rough.”
The news of the injury stunned her teammates, coaches and members of Knight nation, especially her basketball coach.
“I took it probably a little harder than she did honestly. It was really tough,” Blue Ridge girls basketball coach Drew O’Connell said. “I honestly took a week to kind of overcome it and I’d be lying to you if when we lose games I don’t think about how she could have helped us.”
Senior Alex Specht, the basketball team’s starting center, had a close-up view of the injury because she played volleyball with Gilbert as well. In the moment, her mind drifted to basketball instantly.
“I just thought to myself ‘Oh my god this is going to suck for basketball’ because Jessica is so good on defense and she was our second leading scorer last year. I realized that I would need to step my game up a whole lot,” Specht said.
Despite her inability to contribute on the court due to injury, Gilbert was committed to helping out her team in any way she could. She was determined not to miss a game or practice throughout the season.
“I knew I had to keep coming because I was a big part of this team because I’m a senior and most people looked up to me when I played,” Gilbert said.
Her dedication meant a lot to O’Connell, so as Senior Night rolled around, he was determined to honor his star player. He came up with a plan which included having Gilbert be announced in the starting line-up.
The crowd rose to its feet and roared in approval as Gilbert was announced. Late in the contest, O’Connell had Gilbert enter the game to shoot two free throws. Her rustiness — and her knee brace — were definitely factors as she failed to connect on either attempt, but it still was a touching moment for the senior.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience because I couldn’t play,” Gilbert said. “And how they would do that for me shows that they care so much about me. It was just special.”
Gilbert hasn’t given up on the dream to possibly play softball at the end of her senior year. Softball is Gilbert’s favorite sport and she will always be remembered as one of the best to ever play on the softball diamond.
As a junior, Gilbert was first-team all-conference, and she holds the school record for batting average after she hit .573 and collected 40 RBI without striking out in 89 plate appearances.
She also started for the varsity team during her freshman and sophomore seasons.
The switch-hitter has already been practicing to see if she could possibly hit before the season is over. That the possibility is still very much up in the air has not deterred her.
“Depending on how I’m doing, I could be able to come back at the end of the season and maybe play first base,” Gilbert said, grinning. “I’m going to ask the doctor if I can hit or if that would be too much stress on the knee.”
Long-time head softball coach Wayne Brown admitted that his team will lose a significant piece of offense without Gilbert in the line-up.
“I know we’ll miss her significantly on the softball field,” Brown said. “She had really improved tremendously and it’s such a shame that she won’t be out there to start the season.”
Gilbert will plan to attend Southeast Missouri State in the fall and she hopes to fulfill her dream of playing college softball.
As far as her impact on the program, her basketball coach summed it up best.
“I just think the way she carried herself was so mature. She never pouted, she never came to practice in tears. She knew that to help the team she was going to have to become a coach and that she was going to be our eyes and ears and that it wasn’t going to be about her,” O’Connell said. “And I think that’s why tonight was super special to get her the start and a couple free throws. She’s just a special kid.”