Jayla Wesley provides influence, spark to upstart Chippewas while working back from injury

Freshman middle blocker Jayla Wesley, left middle, celebrates with her teeam during the game against NIU on Friday, Sept 30 at McGuirk Arena.

Confident amidst all the doubt.

That’s the best way to describe Jayla Wesley’s attitude when observing a Central Michigan volleyball practice. Wesley is dressed for practice, but she is not participating. One would never guess that there was anything wrong when simply focusing on her upbeat attitude and smile. 

Her positivity is hard to miss.

Unfortunately, so is the brace on her right knee.  

Wesley suffered a torn ACL during a spring volleyball practice doing a routine drill. The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is one of four ligaments that hold the leg and knee together. 

ACL injuries can derail athletic careers because the ligament is such a vital part of the human body when it comes to movement. Recommended recovery time can vary from nine months to two years, depending on who you ask. 

When a senior like Wesley is faced with the doubt of possibly never playing again, it can be easy for athletes to mail it in and give up on their dreams. Injuries can be tougher to overcome psychologically as opposed to physically.

But Wesley does not want to be denied. 

'Just working hard and rehabbing every day'

Wesley, the electrical engineering major from West Bloomfield, has appeared in 259 sets over the course of her Chippewa career. Statistically, she’s posted 320 kills and 190 blocks. She was primed for a big senior season. 

The injury happened the week before spring break. 

During practice, the team was doing a drill designed for hitters. The drill, called The Slide,” requires hitters to hit from behind the setter. Wesley jumped to hit, and “glided into the pole.”

Her ACL tore on the impact. After having surgery three weeks later, it has been all about getting back on the court with her teammates. 

The start of her journey was nothing close to simple.

“The first three weeks were definitely the toughest,” said Wesley. “You’re still in a lot of pain and everything feels really stiff."

A question that often crossed her mind during that three-week span was, "How am I going to get better?"

However, it's clear that Wesley didn’t dwell on the negativity too much. Right after she mentioned the struggle, she smiled and noted that her recovery process “has been on an uphill rise ever since.”

“The main thing is just working hard and rehabbing every day,” she said. 

While she cannot partake in games or scrimmages, Wesley is still an active member of the team. She comes to every practice, and when she’s not spending time rehabbing, she can be seen mingling with the team, keeping everyone upbeat. 

“She’s our swag,” said coach Mike Gawlik. 

'I encouraged her to find a role'

Gawlik said he was told of her diagnosis the day before spring break. 

“She’s a player who has played a lot for us in the past,” said Gawlik. 

He indicated that Wesley has a lot of experience that could’ve been useful for the squad this season. Recalling the seriousness of the injury, Gawlik is unwilling to rush her back into action until she is fully healthy. 

“It sucks for anyone to lose career time,” he said. “The timing of her injury made it really, really challenging for her because she’s in the latter part of her career.”

When he found out about her injury, Gawlik had a proposal.

“I encouraged her to find a role and still have a voice,” he said. 

He also said that he empathizes with her situation, and that being injured can cause one to feel isolated because they cannot be on the court competing with their teammates. 

Wesley has done just the opposite.

“Keep an eye on her on the bench,” Gawlik said.

He stated that she is both fiery and emotional, keeping her teammates on their toes. Gawlik calls her the team’s “bench captain.”

Gawlik said that it is unlikely she will play this fall, given that she is only in month six of the rehab process. They were exploring options for next season. 

The fact that she may not play doesn’t hinder her contributions to the team.

“To say that she hasn’t played any part in us having a good start would be doing her a disservice,” Gawlik said of Wesley and the way she has been able to contribute without playing. 

“She’s a really awesome kid.”

A sliver of hope

Wesley knows rehabilitation is difficult. She knows that the odds to play again are against her. However, there is a possibility of her returning to the Chippewas next season should she not play this year. 

The NCAA allows each student-athlete a redshirt year to go along with four years of playing eligibility. Given that Wesley is in her fourth year, she still has the option of redshirting. She could also apply for a medical redshirt through the NCAA due to her injury. 

Wesley simply wants to play. 

“I know it will be emotional,” she said with a smile when asked about a possible return to the court. 

Wesley indicated that she jumped for the first time last week. She “almost cried.” 

Wesley’s commitment cannot be denied. It will be a long road back, as with any athlete dealing with this type of injury. The injury could’ve brought her down – forever.

Pay attention Gawlik’s advice, and keep an eye out for Wesley the next time the Chippewas take the floor. 

Her influence will be as strong as anyone in the gym.