Senior works way back from mono

Alexa Palen’s career has been plagued by injuries, but she’s hoping to return this season over spring break.

Minnesota's Alexa Palen plays against Wisconsin on Friday, March 4, 2011, at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Joe Michaud-Scorza, Daily File Photo

Minnesota’s Alexa Palen plays against Wisconsin on Friday, March 4, 2011, at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Dane Mizutani

Gophers tennis senior Alexa Palen sat quietly in the stands at Baseline Tennis Center a few weeks ago.

She wore a Gophers hoodie and sweatpants and was forced to watch as her team secured a big win against rival Wisconsin.

She cheered from the stands, but it was clear the senior wished to be on the court competing for her squad.

“It was brutal,” Palen said. “It sucked. I’m not going to lie.”

Palen has missed more than a month of action since being diagnosed with mononucleosis in early February.

The Rochester, Minn., native has struggled to stay healthy in her career with Minnesota. She said she’s been nagged by right wrist injuries as well as a severe back injury she sustained last season.

Palen played primarily No. 1 and No. 2 singles last year before suffering the back injury that kept her out the entire summer and most of the fall season.

She started rehab last September and regained some of her strength, which helped her return for the start of the Gophers’ spring season.

Palen said she didn’t feel 100 percent but was excited to get back on the court.

“I don’t know if I ever will be able to play at that point where I used to be able to,” she said, “but I’m lucky [my back is] strong enough for me to play in my senior season.”

But upon her return, Palen felt sluggish at times in practice. She said at first she thought she was out of shape from missing so much time, but the tiredness persisted.

“I got a checkup, and I ended up having mono,” she said.

The infectious disease caused her to feel constantly tired at first.

“I just got to a point where I didn’t feel like doing anything,” she said. “I would just sit on the couch after practice. I didn’t want to go get ice. I didn’t want to walk home. I just sat.”

The illness forced Palen out of the lineup and away from the team for more than three weeks. She wasn’t allowed to be around for team activities because mononucleosis is extremely contagious.

“It felt like something was missing for me. I didn’t feel the same,” she said. “They’re like my family, and I wasn’t allowed to be around them.”

Her absence left a big hole in the lineup for head coach Chuck Merzbacher. But Merzbacher said the lineup was one of the last things on his mind when he found out about Palen’s illness.

“I obviously want to put the best team out there, but more importantly, I just felt bad for her because it’s her senior year,” he said.

Palen said mono was a slap in the face after she put in so much work to return to full strength.

“I don’t even know if it’s really sunk in yet,” she said. “I just kind of laugh and don’t have words for it. I didn’t see it coming at all, but I sucked it up.”

Palen said the virus is gone, but some days she still gets tired if she does too much for an extended period of time.

“There are still bad days here and there, but those are kind of rare,” she said.

She returned to the practice courts two weeks ago and said she hopes to return to matches during spring break.

Merzbacher said this is the healthiest he’s seen Palen and said she will make an immediate impact.

“We really need her out there for her leadership,” he said. “We need someone that’s been through the battles.”

The spring season is only half over, and Merzbacher said Palen will still have an opportunity to compete at a high level. But he said he’ll have to manage her time on the court because her back tends to flare up after extended amounts of play.

“She doesn’t really know how to hold back,” he said. “It’s really all or nothing for her … and once she’s in a competitive mode, it’s hard to pull her back.”

Merzbacher said he plans to initially use her exclusively on the doubles side as a way to monitor her reps, but he didn’t rule out the option of Palen playing singles by the end of the season.

Palen won’t graduate until December, but her eligibility ends once spring semester is complete.

“I wish I was able to play fully this season, but I have learned a tremendous amount from the injuries that [extends] past sports,” she said. “I wouldn’t change a thing about my career.”