A year ago, she was undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the herniated disc in her neck.
A week ago, she was back on the court again in full strength, a Tournament MVP leading the Tigers to a 3-0 sweep in the War Eagle Invitational (photos).
Today, she’s back in her hometown of Dallas, Texas, trying to add another chapter to her comeback story and help her team win another tournament title as it competes in the Doubletree Classic on the campus of SMU.
That’s the story of junior outside hitter Katherine Culwell, who has battled back through missing a medical redshirt season to help lead the Tigers to a perfect 7-0 start in 2012.
Culwell recorded 28 kills in three matches on her way to earning Tournament MVP honors last weekend, and added 9 kills in the Tigers’ midweek tilt against Troy on Tuesday.
Now, she hopes to add to that stretch of powerful play in front of family and friends in her own backyard. She’ll be playing in Moody Coliseum at SMU, just down the road from her parents’ home in Dallas.
“It’s going to be fun,” Culwell said. “SMU is right across the street from my dad’s store. Hopefully we can get the whole crew in there to watch. My family is coming to the game — they live about three blocks away.”
After sitting out last season, Culwell is ready to play on just about any volleyball court, no matter how near or far from home it is.
“She’s eager to play,” said Auburn volleyball head coach Rick Nold. “That’s an understatement. When you’re sitting out, I think you see a lot of different things, not just about yourself but in other people and what the team needs. When we saw her come back in the spring, she came back into a leadership position. She’s been voted a captain, and a lot of that is just based on how she comes in and works. She’s one of the hardest workers on the team, and obviously we need her to be a go-to player for us.”
It wasn’t an easy path for Culwell to get to this point, going all the way back to last year and her season-ending surgery.
“I had a herniated disc in my neck, so I had to have surgery,” Culwell said. “I found out about a week before the season started so there was not much chance to play. It was really disappointing. I had stayed all summer long, and trained all summer long to prepare for the season. Then I found out about a week before that it’s a no-go.”
Now a fourth-year junior, Culwell is savoring every moment she shares with her teammates on the court this season.
“I was really anxious,” she said. “Going through the spring again, it’s like it was such a long period of time. But I’m wanting to play more than I did in the past. When you can’t play, all you want to do is play. So it’s a good feeling.”
Katherine isn’t the only Tiger back in her home state today. Seniors Sarah Bullock, from Allen, Texas, and Brittney Rhude, from Spring, Texas, have also helped build a recruiting pipeline for the program out West.
“It’s something we wanted to do,” Nold said. “When we planned it, (Culwell) was going to be a senior this year, if not for the injury, along with (Sarah) and Brittney. We like to get them back near their families. I think they’re excited to get back out there. It’s going to be a great tournament for us. All three teams were ranked ahead of us in terms of RPI last year, so we’re looking at this as a measuring stick in seeing where we are going into the conference.”
Culwell thinks that while the Tigers are up for the toughest test of the season so far, she and her teammates are up for the challenge.
“We’ve kind of geared the preseason to have some matches to build on and improve on,” Culwell said. “It’s been a good start and confidence booster for us to be able to go into this tougher tournament this weekend having some wins.”
Auburn is set to take on Texas State today at 11 a.m. today, followed by Wichita State at 5 p.m. The Tigers close out the tournament with SMU at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. If the Tigers are going to continue the winning trend of their best season start since 1991, they will have to find a way to play at their best more consistently.
“A lot of it is just continuity,” Nold said. “We were talking a lot about what our mindset is, what our attitude is, and trying to really learn how to fight together and compete. A lot of that I think is controlling our energy level. We want to be fiesty team and a scrappy team, and a team that just keeps coming after you.
“I think we understand the things that we need to do. It’s just a matter of how to implement that into a game.”
For Culwell, the Tigers will have to find that balance to come away with another tournament title in her hometown.
“We’ve been talking a lot about our attitude and our energy, and being more consistent at a higher level,” Culwell said. “We have spurts of really good play, and then we kind of drop off a little bit. It’s kind of back and forth so we’re trying to get into a consistent higher level of play.”
If Auburn can find a way to play its best in Dallas, the Tigers are poised to bring home even more hardware before beginning conference play next week.
After all, Auburn’s best — as it sits at 7-0 for the first time in 20 years — is perfection.
TWER photo by Abby King.
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