Mary Lake, once the most nimble, talented volleyball player in the valley, left Palm Springs High School a year ago stuck in a knee brace, hobbled by an injury that stole away her senior season.
But in three years, her volleyball coach at BYU thinks Lake could very well leave Provo, Utah, behind as the best libero the successful program has ever seen.
A journey whose prequel started in Lake’s high school freshman year while hot on the Cougars’ list of recruiting hopefuls began this January, with Lake first stepping onto the campus as a student, having graduated a semester early, leaving her Indian family behind. As all college students do, she brought along bits and pieces from her high school life, including an injury she wished she could have left in her wake.
“I got to BYU and immediately started rehab every day, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Lake said. “But it definitely pushed me in a good way. Whenever the team was practicing, I was working on my knee.
“It was hard watching. I’d just come to a new school and wasn’t able to play, and it really was pushing me because I wanted to be out there on the court.”
Within four months that may have felt like Lake’s entire four years in Provo, the freshman was cleared to play, just in time to join her teammates on an exhibition trip to China, where they played club and lower-level national teams, took in the sights, completed service projects and prepared for the grueling season ahead.
For Lake, though, readjusting to life on the court wasn’t always easy. Was the speed of the game faster, or were her torn knee ligaments, still coated in rust, holding her back from her true form? She’s still not quite sure.
“It was honestly hard, going from high school to college. It takes a mental toll on you,” Lake said. “It feels like you’re a freshman in high school again, but worse. And I had doubts that if I hadn’t hurt my knee, it would be easier.”
Next year, BYU opponents better hope the game doesn’t get any easier for the program’s newest name in the history books.
In the weeks prior to the start of the regular season against Utah Valley on Aug. 26, Lake was in competition for the team’s starting libero spot. The often humble Lake knew she had to prove herself as a freshman and didn’t expect the spot to be simply handed to her, but just days before matches began, Lake held a vice grip on the starting spot.
As a true freshman, Lake played as many sets – 117 – as anyone on the team, including fifth-year senior Amy Boswell, who played the same number and was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I All-America first team.
Lake sprung out of the gates quickly, according to coach Heather Olmstead, recording one of her two best games of the season less than two weeks in against then-No. 11 Ohio State.
“We were down two sets to none, and she (Lake) just had this never-say-die attitude and carried us to a five-set win,” Olmstead said.
In the match, Lake recorded 38 digs, which would be her high for the season, good enough for second all-time at BYU in the rally scoring era. She earned MVP honors of the Sports Imports D.C. Koehl Classic and two days later was named the West Coast Conference Volleyball Player of the Week on Sept. 5.
Olmstead, who’s known Lake well for nearly five years, was thoroughly impressed how easily her true freshman, playing with her bionic-looking knee brace for the first time, picked up the speed of the college game.
“She stepped up the first match and just never looked back. She goes in and plays with no fear and doesn’t let her injury hold her back,” Olmstead said. “I’ve been very impressed to watch her keep up with the speed that’s so much faster.”
READ MORE: Mary Lake named female athlete of the year
Lake, who had gotten used to playing the leading role even as a high school sophomore, said that at times, she had to hold herself back from being as vocal in team huddles in the heat of the action, something that wasn’t always easy.
Deep inside Lake’s bubbly, energetic nature is a fiery will to win, but she had to tame the beast to show, not speak, a different style of leadership Olmstead welcomed and said didn’t go unnoticed.
“She leads by example. She’s talkative and communicates with teammates and just goes to work hard every play and is scrappy,” Olmstead said. “People are going to follow that. She has a confidence on the court that people just want to follow.”
Lake nearly helped pull out an NCAA quarterfinals win over No. 4 seed Texas last week, facing a familiar hole. Down two sets to none, the Cougars crawled back to take the third and fourth by the slightest of margins. With two aces from Lake in the decisive fifth, BYU led 5-0, still held the advantage at 10-5, and though being tied 12-all, pulled ahead for two match points at 14-12 before the Longhorns won the final four points.
After the match, Lake was added to the all-tournament team, but she said she’s far from satisfied, despite a stellar, star-studded freshman slate that saw her set the single-season all-time digs record at BYU with 547, earning a spot on the WCC All-Freshman team.
For now, she’s basking at the thought of the start of her third semester on campus, realizing how far she’s come and how much that extra semester on campus helped her not only heal, but grow.
“I’m excited to not have to be the scared little freshman again,” she said with a chuckle. “People in high school try to scare you into thinking college is going to be this big monster, but it’s just that everything is amplified more.
“You get to make your own choices and run your own life and then face the consequences, whether good or bad.”
As Olmstead looks into her crystal ball to guess Lake’s future, she sees plenty of good on the horizon.
“She could be the best libero BYU has ever seen, but I know she wants to impact our program in different ways,” Olmstead said. “She wants to be part of a team that wins the program’s first national title, and she’s going to try to encourage people to come along on that journey too and make them better.”