The University of San Diego volleyball team is closing in on the West Coast Conference championship, and one of the key reasons why is the return of fifth-year senior Amy Mahinalani DeGroot.
The Toreros have won or shared three of the last four titles, and it should not come as a surprise to learn the one that got away was last year when the reigning WCC Player of the Year and honorable mention AVCA All-American was sidelined with stress fractures in both legs.
Even while she was leading the USD to a third consecutive conference title and an eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance in 2008, DeGroot was playing through so much pain offseason surgery was the only way to extend her career.
Now, after watching from the sideline for a year, the 6-foot-2 outside hitter has regained her form and is eager to help San Diego make another run deep into the NCAA tournament.
Despite playing through an ever-increasing level of pain during her junior season, DeGroot averaged a team-leading 4.22 kills per set and was among the leaders in both digs and blocks. An amazing accomplishment considering her pain was so intense she often was unable to practice.
"I would try for the first couple of reps," DeGroot said, "But sometimes even passing was not easy. I would sit out a couple of days at least to save it for the matches. I have a really high pain tolerance, so for me to say something was that painful, it was probably an eight or a nine, even a 10 at some points."
DeGroot resisted a thorough examination until after the NCAA tournament, but at that point she knew something had to be done.
"It was almost like I didn't want x-rays because I knew it would end my season," she said.
The x-rays revealed the dreaded black lines -- five in the left leg and three in the right -- and Dr. Paul Murphy, an orthopedic surgeon who serves as a team physician with the USD Athletics Department, inserted a titanium rod in each leg to take the stress off the tibia.
The first surgery was performed on the left leg in early February, with the operation on the right leg occurring about a month later.
"At first I thought it was going to be a couple of months and I would be jumping again, at least working out staying down on the court," DeGroot said. "I couldn't really jump because it was just as painful as it was before I had the surgery."
In spite of the pain, conversations DeGroot had with many doctors convinced her she would be able to complete her collegiate career.
"I don't think it ever crossed my mind that I wouldn't be able to play after the surgery," she said. "I talked to multiple doctors about people who had the surgery before and what they were able to do, I was confident that there would be a point where I could be out on the court again."
The real question was when would she be able to play?
"That surgery isn't done that often and certainly not often enough to predict how long it's going to take to recover," head coach Jennifer Petrie said. "Heading into that fall season, it was pretty evident that she was not going to be at 60-75 percent, and she didn't want to end her college career without feeling she had given it her all. We waited all the way up until the season started and just decided to wait another year."
DeGroot returned to the court during the spring and it became evident she would be able to play during the 2010 season. How much she would contribute statistically would not be known until the fall, but Petrie knew having her back on the court was a significant boost for the team.
"She's such a tremendous leader," Petrie said. "No matter how her body responded, it was going to be a huge plus to have her back on the team and back on the court. The team looks to her to get the pulse of the game and the emotion that's coming from her. She's a joy to be around and to play with. She's like that, day in and day out."
Even though DeGroot was cleared to play at full speed, she still had to get past the mental hurdle of believing her legs could withstand the physical pounding that comes with playing at the level at which she was accustomed.
"It was scary for me to jump with these things in my legs," DeGroot said. "You just have to accept the fact that you can do it. Your body will do it."
DeGroot's return to the USD lineup provided a level of stability that has helped the Toreros move to within four victories of becoming the first undefeated conference champion since 2004 and possibly joining Santa Clara as the only West Coast Conference teams to advance to the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
"She's a tremendous blocker," Petrie said. "Her defense is so strong we moved her to left back to cover more court for us. She passes well. Her overall game is extremely strong. Certain skills took a little bit of honing. Serve receive is definitely something you need to get a lot of touches and reps."
One of the top all-around players in the country, DeGroot averages 3.62 kills, 3.46 digs and 0.54 blocks per set. Teaming with senior right-side hitter Ali Troost, the 2009 WCC Player of the Year, the Toreros have a one-two punch that few teams can match.
USD improved to 20-4 overall and took a two-match lead in the conference standings with a four-set victory over Saint Mary's on Nov. 3. The Toreros have won 12 consecutive matches and 36 of 40 sets since losing at Big West Conference leader Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 22.
San Diego's other losses were at home to Cal on Sept. 4 and to Hawaii and UCLA in the first two matches of the season when DeGroot and Troost were nursing injuries.
As the Toreros gear up for an almost certain appearance in the NCAA tournament, DeGroot is confident the best is yet to come.
"We feel really good about where we are right now and we're going to try to push so we can get into the NCAA tournament and do some damage," she said. "That's the most exciting part right now. We're still not playing our best. If we can peak at the right time, we're going to be a dangerous team."
Around the nation
Team of the week: Stanford defeated No. 10 UCLA and then No. 7 USC to fight its way back into a tie with Cal atop the Pac-10 standings. The Cardinal avenged one of their two conference losses with a four-set victory over the Bruins on Friday night. During that match, senior outside hitter Alix Klineman put away 20 kills to become the sixth player in school history to reach 1,800 in her career. On Sunday, Stanford swept the Trojans to reach the 20-win mark for the ninth year in a row. The Cardinal has won all four of their matches since sophomore setter Karissa Cook returned to the lineup after missing seven matches with an injury, allowing Stanford to go back to its 6-2 system. The Cardinal plays its next three matches on the road, beginning this weekend when it travels to the Pacific Northwest to face Washington and Washington State.
No. 1 Florida fights back: The top-ranked Gators went five sets for the first time since early September, coming from behind for a 25-23, 18-25, 21-25, 25-23, 15-11 victory at Auburn on Sunday. UF extended its winning streak to 17 matches and remains the only undefeated team in the SEC with a 15-0 conference record. The Gators have won 51 of 59 sets since dropping a four-set decision against Penn State on Sept. 10. Florida, which owns a two-match lead over No. 15 LSU in the battle for the SEC championship, plays host to Mississippi State and Alabama this week before going on the road for its final three matches, including a trip to Baton Rouge on Nov. 21.
FIVB World Championships: The United States advanced to the semifinals of the FIVB World Championship in Japan, but not the way it wanted. After losing to No. 1 Brazil 25-19, 24-26, 25-19, 25-23 in its final match of the second round, Team USA needed Cuba to beat Italy or at least score enough points for the Americans to prevail in a tie breaker based on point ratio with the Italians. Cuba won the match 16-25, 26-24, 21-25, 25-23, 24-22, giving the United States a spot in a semifinal against Russia on Nov. 12 in Tokyo. Japan will face Brazil in the second semifinal. The winners play for the gold medal on Nov. 14.
The week ahead: A share of first place in the Big Ten could be on the line when No. 9 Illinois visits No. 8 Penn State on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions pulled to within one match of the Illini last weekend with victories at Michigan and Michigan State. Illinois, which began the week by sweeping Wisconsin, lost in three sets for the first time this season on Friday at Northwestern. The Illini visit Ohio State on Friday while PSU plays host to the Badgers. With victories at Columbia and Cornell this Friday and Saturday, Yale could clinch the Ivy League title and become the first team to earn a spot in this year's NCAA tournament.
Ball State clinched at least a share of its first Mid-American Conference regular season championship for the first time since the 2002 with a four-set victory at Central Michigan. Senior libero Alyssa Rio became the second player in BSU history to record 2,000 career digs with the third of her match-high 26. Senior libero Alana Wittenburg had 24 digs to brake her own single-season record of 633 as Drake snapped a 23-match winless streak against Missouri State c Senior libero Kayla Banwarth became Nebraska's career digs leader with the second of 18 during a three-set victory over Texas Tech. Banwarth eclipsed Jennifer Saleauma's total of 1,568. Senior middle blocker Arielle Wilson had eight kills during Penn State's sweep at Michigan to surpass the 1,000 career kill mark. Wisconsin-Milwaukee senior middle blocker Natalie Schmitting had a pair of blocks during a three-set victory at Wright State to become the first player in the school's Division I history to record 500 total blocks. Junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey put away 21 kills against USC to become the 14th player in Cal history to reach 1,000. Belmont junior outside hitter Maggie Johnson reached the 1000-kill milestone with 19 during a four-set victory at Stetson. Idaho's Jenny Feicht notched career assist No. 1,000 as the Vandals came from behind for a five-set victory at Nevada.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.