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Digging deep: Henrianna Ibarra’s return from two season-ending injuries

Digging deep: Henrianna Ibarra’s return from two season-ending injuries

Digging deep: Henrianna Ibarra’s return from two season-ending injuries
March 26
12:00 2021

When injuries sidelined defensive specialist Henrianna Ibarra for each of the last two volleyball seasons, the redshirt-junior questioned whether she wanted to play the sport again. After returning from two ACL injuries to the same knee, Ibarra has been a key contributor to the volleyball team this season.

“Just to be able to play again is the greatest blessing,” Ibarra said. “I was really determined to get back on the court quickly, so when I tore my ACL again, I really fell into a dump of like, ‘Do I want to play volleyball still or should I just give up now?’ Having a strong support system helped me get through that tough time.”

A 2017 recruit from San Antonio, Ibarra began playing volleyball when she was five years old. She also played softball and basketball before focusing solely on volleyball in high school. She was an All-State outside hitter at Holy Cross, a Catholic middle and high school in San Antonio, before transitioning to defensive specialist at North Texas.

At 5-foot-8, Ibarra knew she was undersized for an outside hitter and would likely have to switch positions to play at the college level. Head coach Andrew Palileo said he recruited her as a defensive specialist after seeing her ball control in high school.

“She had pretty good ball control [in high school], so we thought we could turn her into a libero,” Palileo said. “If she wasn’t a libero right away, that she could be an attacking [defensive specialist]. That’s what our plan was for her and how we envisioned her playing for us. There [were] definitely things she needed to work on and really hone in on her craft, but she ended up being the starting libero her first year.”

Ibarra made the transition to defensive specialist quickly as a freshman, leading the Mean Green (29-4, Conference USA 13-1 in 2017) in digs with 320. She said playing with an experienced team in 2017 — with mainly upperclassmen contributors aside from then-freshmen Barbara Martin and Valerie Valerian — made the transition easier.

“[The transition] wasn’t that bad because, as an outside hitter, I [had] played back row as well,” Ibarra said. “I think having such an experienced team [helped]. It was just me, Barb and Val playing as freshmen and then the rest were basically seniors. Just them having the confidence in me to pick up some balls for them, it didn’t have to be perfect passes, it just had to be up.”

Those early contributions meant Ibarra’s future with the team looked promising. In April of 2018, however, Ibarra suffered a knee injury which kept her out of the Fall 2018 season. Fast forward to April 2019 — a year and one day after her first knee injury — and Ibarra suffered another ACL injury, to the same knee at that.

“It was tough because throughout high school I didn’t really know what injuries were,” Ibarra said. “I didn’t have any injuries, I didn’t have a sprained ankle, I didn’t have anything. Whenever I did injure my knee, I didn’t even know what an ACL was. It was just tough to realize what was actually going to happen the next couple of months, it was going to be like a four-to-six-month recovery.”

As injuries kept her out of back-to-back seasons, Ibarra said she still had fun seeing the team from an outsider’s perspective and watching them continue to succeed. Senior setter Kaliegh Skopal, who lives with Ibarra, said Ibarra’s dedication to the team helped her make a long-awaited return this season.

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’re injured and not on the court to stay in-sync with the team and she did that very easily,” Skopal said. “You could tell that she was eager to get back and was very attentive to make sure she was a part of the team like everyone else was, even though she wasn’t able to contribute on the court.”

In making her return, Ibarra leads the team with 246 digs through 20 matches. She was named C-USA Defensive Player of the Week on March 23 after tallying a career-high 31 digs in North Texas’ final regular-season conference match on March 22. The Mean Green clinched a spot in the C-USA tournament by winning the match.

Ibarra said sophomore defensive specialist Aleeyah Galdeira (220 digs) stepping in as libero and allowed her to ease back into the lineup.

“It feels really great to just ease my way back,” Ibarra said. “Aleeyah did a great job filling my spot and letting me come in slowly. Me and her switching off, I think that’s the greatest combo ever. If I’m having an off-day she picks me up and if she’s having an off-day I pick her up.”

With the struggles Ibarra has dealt with over the last two seasons, Skopal is grateful to see her return as a key contributor.

“It’s very rewarding to watch her get everything that she’s earned and worked for,” Skopal said. “It speaks a lot to what she’s done in the shadows, going through those last two years. I think it’s a lot of a physical challenge but it’s also mentally challenging to go through those injuries that put you out for that long.”

Featured Image: Redshirt-junior Henrianna Ibarra forms an eagle claw with her hand after a game against Louisiana Tech on March 15, 2021. Image by Zachary Thomas

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John Fields

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