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Belle Vernon senior plays through pain

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Belle Vernon volleyball and softball player Alexis Ellin had surgery to remove an extra bone in her left ankle. Despite having a similar condition in her right ankle, Ellin decided against having surgery on it, at least for now.
Belle Vernon volleyball and softball player Alexis Ellin had surgery to remove an extra bone in her left ankle. Despite having a similar condition in her right ankle, Ellin decided against having surgery on it, at least for now.

Belle Vernon senior volleyball/softball player Alexis Ellin holds a position of honor in the local Murphy's Law Club.

After having surgery on her left foot at the conclusion of volleyball season last year, Ellin eagerly anticipated the beginning of her senior season. But, as Murphy dictated, she landed on another player's foot and sprained — you guessed it — her right foot during a Lady Leopards early season volleyball tournament as her senior year was getting under way.

But nothing holds her back, Belle Vernon girls volleyball coach Stephanie Flatt said.

“Alexis is a fighter. As we were getting ready for our season this year, she wore a protective boot until she was completely ready to play,” Flatt said. “Even though she was not on the floor during early season drills, she would sit — while wearing the boot — in the bleachers in the gym and set and hit, until she was able to get back on the floor with her teammates. Even though she was not physically on the floor, she helped with warm-ups and was still supporting the team. Then she injured her other ankle in our first game, but she eventually came back.”

But that's only half the story, Ellin noted, staring at and comparing her ankles.

She has an extra navicular bone on the outside of each of her ankles, she said, adding that “it is rare but not really rare. It's just something some people are born with.” In fact, about 10 percent of the general population has the condition, but in most cases the extra bone is not large enough to produce pain. At the same time, athletes such as Ellin are more prone to suffer distress caused by the presence of the extra bone.

While Ellin experienced pain in her ankles as she was growing, her condition did not adversely manifest itself until she made the volleyball team as a freshman.

“There was no volleyball program in middle school, but I played in a middle school volleyball tournament in gym class,” Ellin recalls. “I tried it, liked it, tried out as a freshman and made the team.”

But not only did she make the team, but she became an immediate starting setter and continued in that capacity throughout her scholastic career, all the while playing through the pain caused by the extra bone. But until Ellin injured her ankle as a freshman, she was unaware of the specifics of her condition.

“I had X-rays and doctors explained that that the pain was the result of having the extra bone and being active and jumping and landing on my feet, causing extra stress,” she explained. “On X-rays you can see how my ankles are different than a normal ankle. You can see the extra bone, which is a little smaller than the ankle bone itself.”

Experiencing constant pain by the end of volleyball season last year, Ellin opted for surgery in November 2012 to have the extra bone removed. Once the extra bone was history, doctors inserted plastic clamps to hold the ankle tendon in place.

Now fully recovered, Ellin notes she is just now starting to run at full strength. But, even though she was in a boot for four months and unable to walk for six months following the surgery, she recovered well enough to play softball last spring.

“Surgery did set me back some, but each week I was feeling better,” Ellin said. “I had to stretch my tendons every day and went from not being able to walk to being able to put pressure on my foot.”

Even though she was cleared medically in time for the Lady Leopards first softball game last spring, she played third base but a runner was used when she reached base.

“I'm good now,” Ellin chuckled, “regarding my left foot, but I realize I favored my left foot during volleyball season. But I still have some pain in my right foot because of the sprain.”

However, even though her ankle sprain will heal, the extra bone in her right foot will continue to produce discomfort.

Because of where the bone was located and what the doctors had to do to cut the tendon and then sew it back together, the surgery was one of the most painful surgeries, Ellin noted, explaining what doctors told her.

“I was able to handle the surgery on one foot, but after the surgery I thought having surgery on both ankles would be too much,” Ellin added. “Sometimes there is more pain, sometimes not as much, but after surgery on my left foot, I decided to deal with the pain regarding my right foot. Normally the ankle bone and the extra bone do not come together, but on one occasion this year they came together when I fell and it was not a fun time. Before the surgery I iced my ankles every night; now it's only necessary with my right foot.”

Aside from playing through pain and making “no excuses,” Flatt said, “There was more to Alexis' progress than what she did on the floor. Even as a junior, she was turning into a leader. She really stepped up. She isn't the most vocal player, but when she says something, other players listen. Becoming a leader was the most significant aspect of her development. And on the floor she always gives 100 percent and is always making plays happen. She is always there, playing through pain.”

Les Harvath is a contributing writer.

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