The lessons a torn ACL taught Abby Wollenberg

By Andrew Wuebker | April 12, 2018

When junior lacrosse player Abby Wollenberg landed on her left leg awkwardly in a preseason game this past fall, she knew something wasn’t right.

“‘Oh, holy s—. That was not right,’” she recalled. “It kind of just felt like an ankle [injury]. Kind of like I had just stepped on it wrong, landed wrong, but then I kept going and it was progressively worse.”

With the season-opener slightly over five months away, the second game of a standard play day at Springfield College had suddenly become Wollenberg’s worst nightmare as an athlete. The damage was done. A torn left ACL had ended her junior season before it even started.

In the aftermath since then — the moments, hours, days and now months after the injury — she remembers everything.


From RWU Assistant Athletic Trainer Cory Viveiros telling her the tough news to the acceptance of not being able to play for an entire season, Wollenberg says this experience has been one of the most challenging times in her life. The lessons she’s learned throughout the recovery process, however, and her adjustment to the sideline view have given her new perspectives that have aided her rehab and the team.

After the initial whirlwind of confusion and denial, it sunk in for Wollenberg a couple days after the ACL tear that she wouldn’t be playing at all this year. Wollenberg had surgery on Dec. 7 to repair the torn ACL. Because she sustained previous injuries to both ankles playing basketball in high school that required surgery, Wollenberg was used to the injury scene, but this one was different.

“It’s funny because I really remember everything,” she said. “I was nervous, as anyone would be going into surgery, but I was used to it. It was my third one, so I knew what to expect, but I was definitely more nervous about this one because it was such a bigger injury. And how my body was going to respond, I didn’t know and it was just scary. It was a lot scarier than the last two.”

Post-op, Wollenberg started physical therapy just six days out of surgery, using crutches, and was in a brace for two months.

Workouts for Wollenberg have been tough. With each session comes intensified exercises, like added weight to the push press. She does exercises like squats and hits the bike to rebuild strength in the muscles around her knee.

Accepting help throughout her recovery when she didn’t want it, even when navigating around campus or at home, has been a lesson to Wollenberg.

“I always say, ‘I’m not a crier, I’m not someone who gets upset,’ but I’ve learned, especially through this experience, that it’s okay to show your emotions and it’s okay to need help and it’s okay to hurt,” she said. “Because this is one of the toughest things I’ll ever go through.”

Her parents, trainers, coaches, and teammates have been there for Wollenberg throughout the recovery process. In return, Wollenberg is doing everything possible to contribute to the team off the field, instead of on it, which for her she says has been a big challenge and adjustment.

“That’s been the toughest thing, being on the sidelines, especially as a junior,” she said. “Seeing the freshmen and sophomores — they’re in a spot I want to be. I think the biggest thing is making sure everyone is positive and really in the game, focused on the game. Coach [Jennifer Fox] always says, ‘Leave everything that’s not lacrosse related out of the turf, out of the fences, and just focus on lacrosse.’ And that’s kind of the biggest thing that I try to do is make sure everyone stays focused and really focus on the game plan and what we need to get done.”

Wollenberg has been a huge part of the Hawks’ sideline “celes” (celebrations) during games to keep her teammates positive and upbeat. From calling out numbers to chest bumps and bowling celebrations, the celes are one way she leads from the sidelines.

It wasn’t until a recent loss against against the Hawks’ fiercest rival in the conference, Endicott College, that her injury really hit her. Wollenberg expressed frustration and even became upset when she was unable to help her team on the field.

“I couldn’t bring my lacrosse skills to the field to help them and I think that was the most frustrating, because you could just see that they needed help and they didn’t know what to do,” she said. “Me physically not being able to do that was what got me the hardest.”

The past few months have clearly taught Wollenberg many things, but perhaps most of all to not take any opportunity for granted, especially when it comes to playing lacrosse, heeding the words of her former coach: “Practice like you can’t tomorrow.”

“And that came true this year for me because I couldn’t,” Wollenberg said. “One day I could play and the next I couldn’t even walk with my two legs. I think that’s a lesson that I try to convey to my teammates is, ‘You don’t want to be in my shoes because you miss everything, but I wish you were in my shoes to actually see how much you need to value running and working out and playing with your teammates and doing all that stuff that I physically can’t do.’ And I think they understand that because this team is my blood and I love them and I know them like the back of my hand, and they know I would do anything to be on the field with them.”

Wollenberg has also learned a great deal about herself and what she’s capable of after facing this arduous experience.

“I’ve definitely learned that I’m not unbreakable,” she said. “That bad things are going to happen and it’s how you respond that’s gonna make you the stronger person. Because I know being a senior next year and being a leader of the team that people are going to look to me when times get tough.”

As the season for the Hawks continues to wind down and only three games remain before postseason play begins, Wollenberg will of course be cheering on her teammates from the sidelines. Although still some months away from getting back on the field, Wollenberg is both apprehensive and excited to hit the turf again with a lacrosse stick in hand, but stronger than before. For now, she’s tired of waiting.

“I want to get out there. It’s been long enough.”

From Stars to Scrubs

By Andrew Wuebker | November 16, 2017

BRISTOL, R.I. — The far end of the Hawks’ bench has some new scrubs. And they’re making a heck of a lot of noise.

Making the jump from high school to college is already a difficult transition for some students. For student-athletes who were the cream of the crop in high school, it can be even tougher.

Not these guys — at least not anymore, anyway. That’s just how they make it out to be.

“Let’s go!” said freshman JJ Pfohl. “Bench squad!”

A confident and charismatic “bench squad,” the latest additions to the Roger Williams University men’s basketball team consisting of true freshmen Chris Chapell, Jonah St. Clair, Andrew Hart, Doug Hostetler, Pfohl, and Jeff Stockmal are no longer taking their time tip-toeing through the greener than green grass at RWU, but rolling in it. 

The group hasn’t been intimidated by the drastic change in scenery from high school to college, nor their change in roles on the court that routinely happens to many student-athletes–going from a star, go-to guy in high school to being part of the latest batch of scrubs on a college bench.

So it begs the questions: how did these freshmen seamlessly make this transition? How were they so willing to accept their new roles on the court?

The answer actually can be found off the court, as much as it can on it.

“A thing I’ve noticed a lot is everyone fits in pretty well,” St. Clair said. “It’s not like there’s the starters and there’s everyone else. I feel like [because we are] practicing so much together everyone feels like a part of the team.”

Even with differing personalities, the freshmen have found a way to fit in and mesh with a well-established Hawks team that features nine returners and is looking to build off a 19-win season. Pfohl for one, claims he’s an outgoing and talkative guy that loves heavy sleep and takes four plates of food at Commons. Stockmal is the opposite; a shy, hardcore… gamer?

“Call of Duty is me in the group,” Stockmal admitted. “I’m the one that is the ‘gamer’ I guess.”

“If he spent a third of the time he spent on Call of Duty doing classwork,” St. Clair said, turning to Stockmal, “you would’ve already graduated.”

The relationships of the entire team extends beyond the boundaries of basketball. The team can often be seen eating meals together, especially on the weekends. Late night practices often lead to late night food runs at Lower Commons. After consecutive intense weeks of practice, the Hawks went bowling as a team a couple weekends ago for some much-needed r&r. And players-only meetings every other week provide players an opportunity to talk about what’s going on and voice whatever thoughts are on their minds.

Once the relationships were down, the off-the-court stuff became easy.

On the court, it was slightly more difficult. The freshmen used the words “rough,” “competitive,” and “fast-paced” to describe practices in the early going. The level of conditioning and physicality that needed be met to be able to compete at the Division III level was naturally a bit of an obstacle for these eyases. Shortly, however, the freshmen class began showing their potential through practice and even earned the praise of coaches Michael Tully and Dan Weidmann, calling them “coachable,” “attentive,” “unselfish,” and “talented.”

This freshmen class’ talent in part was the other difficult aspect of this transition. To go from starting to scrubbing can be difficult for some players to deal with at first. Pfohl was a starter since his junior year in high school. St. Clair was also a starter in the later years of his high school career. Hostetler scored 1,000 points. Stockmal, a 1,300-plus point scorer, was shouldered with the load of carrying a team since he was a sophomore. 

“I was a man since sophomore year in high school,” Stockmal said, “so like I was the go-to guy since I was 16 and now it’s different because I was used to that role but now it’s different being a bench player… but it also makes it kind of competitive because now I’m working against these guys for minutes on the team, so it makes it competitive but also fun. All of us want to win.”

At the end of the day, the Hawks’ dominating culture of hard work, sacrifice, and a willingness to win prevails over the personal goals of a single player. Now in the supporting role, the freshmen will have to make their biggest impact from the bench. 

“You just have to be ready, just have to keep engaged while you’re on the bench,” Hart said. “You can’t just be like sitting back there relaxing, having a good time. Like you still need to be in the game and know what’s going on. And the coaches also make a big point of getting the bench involved. Like having a loud bench because that kind of keeps you in the game and it also helps the players on the court at that time.”

Of course, these freshmen don’t know the day when their number will be called. Pfohl and St. Clair pointed out that in the meantime, they’re investing in “starting from the ground up” and keeping a “positive mindset” until their opportunity arrives.

“We always say we’re gonna push each other to the limits on the court, but we’re gonna be friends, family all off the court,” Pfohl said.

It’s a whole new stage for these young players. Although unproven, the potential in their talent is possibly reason enough for them to contribute this season in limited minutes.

Fittingly, Stockmal believes in the young guns and provided some quality parting words.

“Watch out for the bench players.”

Click here for the published article.