Through COVID-19 and a difficult injury, Penn volleyball senior middle hitter Elizabeth Ford has persevered to now become a staple piece for the Quakers.
After appearing in only one match her freshman year and a sophomore season canceled by COVID-19, Ford hit the ground running during her junior year, starting in the team's first three games, all of which Penn won. In the third game, Ford finished with a team-high of seven blocks and a career-high of eight kills. But Ford missed the rest of the season with a back injury, halting the momentum she had been building.
“It was my expectation that I could possibly never play again,” she said.
Throughout her recovery period, Ford stayed positive, always telling herself she was coming back to the game in due time, as her team, family, and coaches stayed by her side.
Fortunately for her, she has since recovered and returned to the lineup this season, contributing 33 kills and 40.5 points so far.
“While I wasn't able to be on the court last year, I had ample opportunity for mental reps,” Ford said. “I watched so much volleyball, [and] my volleyball IQ got better. There was a moment there where I felt like a coach to my teammates, but they welcomed the feedback, and I have a great relationship with them, so now it's just transitioned back to being an on-court leader and player.”
Taking time off also gave Ford a new perspective on the sport and reinforced her passion for the game of volleyball.
“Having it taken away from me for so long made me realize how much I love the sport itself,” she said. “And I love the camaraderie of it. Even when injury was a question, there was never a question of if I was going to leave the team. I was just going to step into a new role if that's what it came to.”
Though volleyball became her beloved game of choice, Ford was always destined to play a sport, given her 6-foot-3 stature and her background coming from a football family. Basketball and volleyball were the clear options, and she chose the latter.
“The height just kind of made volleyball obvious,” Ford said. “I was never good at basketball. The girls in my grade were all headed to this travel club volleyball thing, and I thought I might as well try out — I have the height. And it stuck.”
For the first seven years of her volleyball career, starting at age 11, her team competed at her father's alma mater, Northwestern University, which also happens to be right in her backyard in Evanston, Illinois. She played there with her now-Penn teammate Maddie McGregor, and with both Quakers in their senior years, this is their 11th season together.
“It's nice to have a constant like Maddie,” Ford said. “I don't know volleyball without Maddie.”
On Penn's team, Ford serves as a captain and one of only three seniors, which creates a different pressure to run the court.
“I don't think the title [of] captain has really changed much at all,” she said. “I think now it's just more defined … I can act as a liaison for the younger girls with coaches and staff if they need help finding their words."
“I've been able to become articulate enough and sure enough in my self-advocacy — that will translate to the rest of my life.”
Even amidst setbacks and injury, Ford has been unwavering in her commitment to the team, and she's kept that mentality in her senior season. The middle hitter feels she became mentally tougher through her challenges, and when she’s playing, she is able to understand that it really is just a game.
“When I used to be so far in it, I couldn't remove myself from those pressure situations,” Ford said. “But now I understand it's not life or death, and I have a much better vision of the court after having gotten those mental reps in. I see holes and tendencies that I never would have recognized as a younger player.”
With just seven games left in her final season with Penn volleyball, don't be surprised if Ford translates those mental reps into more impressive game results.