Most players aren’t asked to learn a new position toward the end of their career.
Doing it while rehabbing a torn rotator cuff and labrum almost seems unfair.
It’s the scenario that Larry Wrather faced during the offseason. The fifth-year senior was faced with learning how to play libero for the Ball State men’s volleyball team after years of playing as an outside attacker.
The injury and subsequent surgery on his right shoulder prevented Wrather from playing the position he was so acquainted with, putting a strain on him both physically and psychologically.
“Being in the sling right away and not being able to do anything at all was really frustrating,” he said. “Having to get up at 5 a.m. and cheer on the guys, trying to do whatever I could, it sucked. … It’s never fun sitting on the side and feeling helpless.”
Head coach Joel Walton wanted Wrather to be able to help the team, but it was obvious he wouldn’t have full range of motion back for a long time.
“It’s normally about a six- to nine-month, maybe even 12-month, recovery,” Walton said. “As we were working him back into the mix, we wanted to play him back as a libero.”
With such a wide range of recovery time, Walton felt it was best to be safe with Wrather and allow some of his younger outside attackers a chance to prove their worth.
Although Wrather hoped to immediately jump back to his old position, he understood he wasn’t physically ready and that playing libero was a way for him to work his way back onto the court.
The rules of playing libero took a while for him to get used to. The new position prevented him from rotating to the front row, dictating he do nothing but play defense and pass.
Instead of throwing down attacks, he was digging them while trying to protect and strengthen his repaired shoulder.
He said he believes the injury was caused from all the wear and tear put in his right shoulder since he started playing volleyball.
“I had never played in the left back position before, but it felt great to help the team,” he said.
Helping the team is all Wrather said he cares about. An emotional player, he rarely tries to hide what he’s feeling on the court. Making the switch from a glamorous outside attacker position to the more physical libero position didn’t faze him.
“As long as you’re out there trying to get a win, there’s no reason to [think] that you’re any less [important] than anybody else,” he said.
Staying focused proved to be one of the most difficult tasks for Wrather to overcome. After spending his career attacking, he was forced to reel himself in and remember that all he can do is defend.
Not only that, but he was forced to battle the mental aspect of coming back from a serious injury. Despite feeling fully healed after about six months, he occasionally let the fear of re-injury creep into his mind.
“I’m basically thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t want to tear it again. What’s going to happen if I hit this ball one way or the other?’” he said. “And it probably took me a good year to get back into the mindset of not being afraid to hit the ball the way I want to.”
Over time, Wrather has seen his time in practice increase, playing both libero and outside attacker. He’s showing the ability to play two positions effectively, becoming a dual threat for Walton to use.
Walton said he’s watching Wrather’s shoulder closely, not wanting to overwork him and hoping he can last the entire season.
Before Saturday, the last time he played during the season was in a conference tournament match in April 2012.
After all the rehab, all the learning that went along with the new position and all the waiting, it was time to step into the starting lineup again. He sat on the bench Saturday, just minutes left before his team began the match against Sacred Heart. The announcer began reading the starting lineups to the crowd.
It was his turn.
Wrather quickly jumped up and began running through the tunnel his teammates create when starting lineups are announced. He slapped his teammates’ hands, giving high-fives as he made his way onto the court.
“The Wizard of Worthen, Larry Wrather,” the announcer said, his voice booming through the arena as fans stood and cheered at the sound of Wrather’s nickname. It was the first time the name has been used in nearly two years.
His arms and right shoulder were ready to play outsider attacker if necessary. His legs and feet were prepared for the quick cuts and split-second reactions needed to play libero.
He emerged from the man-made tunnel with a smile plastered on his face.
Whichever of the two roles he could be asked to play, he doesn’t care. He’ll be ready for either.