‘She's gonna have her chance:’ Back from injury, Frontier’s Jillian Apanell eyes shot at Paulo Freire

  • Frontier’s Jillian Apanell (12) hits against Douglas in the first set of the MIAA Division 5 quarterfinal Friday night at Goodnow Gymnasium in South Deerfield. Apanell and the Redhawks will meet defending state champion Paulo Freire in the semifinals on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer 
Published: 11/14/2022 6:14:21 PM

In one second, Jillian Apanell had it all. In the next, it was taken away in the blink of an eye. 

The star of the Frontier volleyball squad, a program known for its long-time success on the court, Apanell was the team’s go-to outside hitter and statistical leader – and a state title was on the horizon. The Redhawks were facing off against Mount Greylock in the 2021 MIAA Division 5 semifinals, and they were dominating the opening set with a quick 5-0 start.

But then Apanell jumped up during a routine play, and when she came back down, she knew something was very, very wrong. 

“I jumped up, hit the ball, came down, tore my ACL and I was still on the ground – I don't really remember much that night. I kind of blocked all of that out,” Apanell said. “It was definitely one of the worst days ever.” 

It wasn’t just the end of Apanell’s night – it was the end of her season, the end of her year. She wouldn’t play any club volleyball that winter for college scouts, wouldn’t suit up for the Frontier softball team in the spring. The Hawks went on to defeat Mount Greylock in the semifinals, but shaken from Apanell’s injury and without one of their key players, fell to Paulo Freire a few days later in the championship match. 

“It's kind of nightmare scenario,” Frontier head coach Sean MacDonald said. “It’s really tough to see her in tears behind the bench and the bleachers. You can just see, she knows she's done. She knows she's really hurt, something's really wrong with it.”

The recovery process was expected to last seven to eight months for Apanell, who had surgery in early December to mend the injury. She went through physical therapy, slowing gaining enough strength so that she could play in a summer volleyball league, working her way back to her usual self. And then – disaster, again.

At the tail end of the summer league, Apanell tore her medial meniscus in the same knee. At first she thought it was just something that was aggravated because of her ACL, but after a few days of pain, she went to get an MRI and her worst fear was confirmed. 

Apanell had a choice – go through another surgery and an eight-to-nine month recovery process during her senior year to repair her MCL, or have a surgery to have it removed entirely, which had a shorter recovery time but presented other potential complications. 

“It was a big family meeting and conversation about ‘do we want to repair this, if it is repairable?’ Or do we want to remove it?” Jillian’s mother Stephanie Apanell recalled. “I just felt like for her mental health, she had been through so much already, and I didn't want to lose her. I knew how important it was for her to be here and be a part of this team. It's been an emotional roller coaster.” 

She opted for the removal. Even with the shorter recovery process, Apanell still got a late start to her senior season. She was able to walk out after surgery under her own power, but had to go back to physical therapy before she was cleared to rejoin the volleyball squad. By the time she arrived, a starting six had already emerged. On the outside looking in, Apanell had to figure out how she could fit into the lineup. 

“Last year I played outside hitter and this year I've been playing middle, right side, serving specialist, I (played defensive specialist) at the beginning. So I'm just wherever the team needs me,” Apanell said. “Wherever the team needs me I’m trying to pop in, which can be challenging not being able to practice the same thing every day… it can definitely be a challenge to try and adjust in the moment, but I'm taking it as it can.” 

It took Apanell a while to get her confidence back, not just physically but mentally. She’s finally looking like her old self back on the court, even if she is playing new spots. More importantly, her teammates are ecstatic to have their captain back.

“Honestly, it was really emotional for me, especially last year when she got hurt and then coming back knowing what could have been... Jillian, I've known her for so long. She's like a big sister to me,” Frontier junior Caroline Deane said. “I honestly think that's been a big factor in getting ourselves ready for the tournament, just having a leader like Jillian... she keeps our nerves down and she's really solid. I'm so happy to have her back. It really changes thing.”

Nobody is happier than Apanell, who will finally get her crack at Paulo Freire when the teams meet in the Division 5 semifinals on Tuesday at West Springfield High School (4 p.m.). In 2021, Apanell had to watch from the sidelines as the Redhawks los to Paulo Freire in the state finals. This year, she’s taking her fate back in her own hands. 

“She wants a chance – win or lose, it was like, I didn’t even get my chance,” MacDonald said. “So she's gonna have her chance to do something in that game.”


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