September 13, 2006 - Last year, in the hallways and gyms of Ironwood Ridge High School, the phrase "Audrey's back" was a reference to the debilitating injury that caused Audrey Barbera, one of the school's more dynamic athletes, to miss the volleyball, basketball and track and field seasons.
This year, the phrase "Audrey's back" isn't a medical diagnosis, it's a warning to opposing teams.
"I'm back and so is my team," said Barbera after volleyball practice on Sept. 9.
No one is happier to see the senior return from the lower back and hip injury than her teammates and coaches. After losing seven seniors to graduation, this year's Nighthawk volleyball team will rely heavily on Barbera and a cast of fundamentally sound players to return the program to the Class 4A championship level it obtained two seasons ago.
"For someone like her, who has been an athlete her entire life and then to be injured your junior year, you kind of lose an identity because it wasn't just volleyball she sat out," said Ironwood Ridge head coach Bill Lang.
Barbera knows a thing or two about championship-caliber play. As a sophomore, she won the Class 4A triple jump state championship. Several months later and six games into the varsity volleyball season, Barbera went down with an injury that surely sent a simultaneous shudder through the collective spines of the school's volleyball, basketball and track and field coaches.
For Barbera, as crazy as it may sound, perhaps she was a little too athletic for her own good.
"My freshman year I was doing splits in the middle of games and I think that cost me," said Barbera. "Going from everything to nothing broke my heart."
Before high school, Barbera regularly competed in basketball, cheerleading, gymnastics, softball, swimming and volleyball. Basically, there wasn't a game she could say no to.
Volleyball has become her sport of choice but it almost wasn't meant to be had a former physical education teacher not intervened. While waiting in the gym for friends as a freshman to go tryout for school's swim team, Barbera was convinced by an assistant volleyball coach to tryout for her sport. A year later, Barbera and the Nighthawks were in the Class 4A championship game.
Early this season, with Barbera on the court, the program notched its 100th win, a feat accomplished in less than five years.
Rehabbing her injury was a complex process as she and doctors tried to heal her back. Barbera tried everything from cortisone shots to extensive rehab to simply seeing if she could play through the pain. Time proved to be the ultimate medicine.
The senior was able to get her volleyball season back when she joined Club Cactus last year. Since then, several Division I colleges have courted the 5-foot, 10-inch senior, even in light of her injury.
Whether she returns to basketball and or track and field - where she starred in the triple jump, long jump, 400-meter relay and the 100-meter hurdles - remains to be seen.
It would be unlike Barbera to take a respite from sports, however, especially with a fully healed back.
College, she believes, may slow her down.
"As much as I didn't enjoy the time off, I know that college is going to be a whole different ball game."
There aren't many ball games Barbera hasn't played, college should be no different.