Baynes fights back after injury threatens her U volleyball career

by Tim Klobuchar

It all began innocently enough, with a bump on the head in a high school basketball game.
Tara Baynes, now a sophomore volleyball player at Minnesota, fell backwards over another player and hit her head during a basketball game her senior year. She got a concussion from the impact, but the effects of it disappeared quickly.
Then came another concussion later that year in spring volleyball. Again the symptoms, such as headaches and dizziness, were short-term.
Those incidents were ancient history as far as Baynes was concerned by the time she became a Gopher. One of the most highly recruited middle blockers coming out of the Midwest, Baynes performed well as a freshman. She played in all 30 matches and averaged more than a block per game, 10th in the Big Ten.
On Oct. 14 Baynes had to leave a match against Michigan State after hitting her jaw on the floor, suffering another minor concussion.
“I was dizzy, and I felt nauseated. I had some related symptoms,” Baynes said. “I felt that way for maybe a few days. I didn’t even miss that much practice.”
But the concussions had been coming easier, with softer blows causing the same damage. This susceptibility to repeated concussions applies to anyone who has ever had one and then another before the brain is fully recovered. But the proneness to this injury is more common in football, not volleyball. It was happening to Baynes, though, and it had been ever since that basketball game in high school.
Not that the shot that finally did it, on April 20 during a tournament in Madison, Wisc., wasn’t a good one. The ball that Jamie Lee of Notre Dame hit was definitely smoked.
“That shot would’ve taken anyone out,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. By Hebert’s estimate, Baynes was 13 feet away from the net when Lee’s spike caught her flush in the face. Still, the punishment Baynes got didn’t fit the crime. Baynes received another concussion — one that didn’t go away this time.
“It was dizziness all the time,” Baynes said. “Sometimes I would get it just bending down. When it did happen it was kind of like when you have a really bad cold, and you don’t really know where you are.”
Baynes had post-concussion syndrome, a condition for which the only cure is time. That was the problem.
For more than four months Baynes was restricted from virtually all physical activity. She even had to quit the lifeguard job she had all through high school.
“It didn’t feel like it was ever going to go away,” Baynes said. “It kept coming and coming. I didn’t know the reason why, and the doctors didn’t. They just said give it time. Kind of like when you get cancer. You don’t know why it’s in your body, it just sort of appears.”
Not surprisingly, Baynes wasn’t much fun around the house.
“She was depressed,” said her mother, Kathy. “I’d ask her all the time how she felt on a scale of one to 10, and she got sick of hearing that. She got tired of us being concerned, and she didn’t know the answers.”
Kathy said she and her husband, Patrick, thought Tara should redshirt this season, and they also tried to prepare her for the possibility of never playing again.
Gradually, however, the dizzy spells and headaches came less frequently, and she was allowed to start training again in late August. Her experiences appeared to be over.
But the long layoff had left Baynes out of shape, and she quickly aggravated a high-school back injury because of the sudden strain. She went back on the shelf and missed several pre-Big Ten matches.
Baynes came back sooner than expected, but at less than full strength. She was also hurting from lack of practice because of her variety of injuries.
“To be out the whole preseason, and then come back on the court after not doing anything for three or four months, and go full force is asking a lot,” Gophers assistant Maurice Batie said. “But Tara’s desire to play just helped her overcome it all. I know she was physically taxed.”
Baynes, however, is steadily improving and making an impact. Her presence in the middle has helped take some of the heat off star outside hitter Katrien DeDecker. Hebert still believes Baynes has the ability to become a special player.
“I try to look at the positive part,” Baynes said. “Looking back and thinking, `What if I was still sitting there?’ It kind of helps me cope with everything.”
Teammate and fellow middle blocker Jane Passer said Baynes helps the team by committing few errors, helping stabilize the team.
Stabilize. After the endless series of dizzy spells and assorted other problems Baynes had, that’s an appropriate word.
Hebert said that Baynes is only playing at between 60 and 70 percent. She needs daily treatment on her back, and the dizzy spells still return periodically. Still, Baynes is back playing volleyball. She has the focus back that deserted her for so long.