Six points in to Texas A&M's long-awaited volleyball match at No. 2 Texas last month, and playing just 15 miles from her hometown of Round Rock, Aggie setter Stephanie Aiple leapt into the air for a ball and landed awkwardly on a teammate's foot.
It was one of those painful ankle injuries that inspires cringes and groans, whether watching in-person at the arena or at home on national television.
Certainly, Aiple, the SEC's reigning player of the year and one of the country's best at her position, had to be done for the night...and maybe even longer.
"I didn't want to see how bad it was," Aiple recalled. "I told (athletic trainer) Erin (Boyette) don't take off my ankle tape. Just put extra tape back around it because I'm going back in."
And she did. Less than 10 minutes later, Aiple (pronounced EYE-plee) was back on the court for her team, where she finished the night with 27 assists.
It has been a banner career thus far for Stephanie Aiple. The junior from Round Rock notched All-America honors her first two years at Texas A&M to go with her SEC Player of the Year mention last season. Aiple, who became the first Aggie underclassman to win a conference player of the year award, averaged 11.44 assists per set in 2015.
It's that blue-collar, anything-for-the-team work ethic that has made Aiple perhaps the most respected player on her team and arguably the best--again--in the SEC.
But then again, playing hurt is nothing new to the All-American, who has battled a nagging back injury for the majority of her career. Doctors have told her the injury likely can't be worsened by playing; rather, it is more of an issue of pain tolerance. The Aggies have athletic trainers and team doctors keeping a sharp eye on her.
Thankfully for A&M, even the recurring pain in her back has not altered Aiple's drive for excellence.
"She's a very blue-collar worker," said A&M coach Laurie Corbelli. "She has the mentality that she knows she's in Division I college sports, and she will have adversity and she will battle through it."
As the team's setter, Aiple is the team's unquestioned leader and quarterback on the court. Over the course of a single match, she makes hundreds of split-second decisions that can make or break the success of not only that point, but the match overall. And she does all that with a razor-sharp focus centered on her competitive drive.
"She's very deeply intense with what she is doing," Corbelli says. "If she makes one tiny error that no one else notices, she's furious with herself. She's an intense competitor and hates to lose.
"Her personal quote is never be satisfied with a win, with a great game. You can always do better. And she has spread that throughout the team, to never be satisfied. That's really important."
In many ways, it seemed inevitable that volleyball would come naturally to Aiple, whose family tree reads like an impressive roster. Her mother, Connie, was a standout at Long Beach State and played Major League Volleyball in Arizona and Los Angeles. Her father, Matt, played on the AVP (professional beach volleyball) tour in California. Her aunt, Diane Watson, was an All-American at Texas. Even her sister, Lauren, played while in high school.
When Lauren first began playing, Stephanie was not yet 10 years old. But she was a regular at her sister's practices, where she spent her time hitting and passing up against a wall. And even then she wanted to find her way on the court.
Something to Smile About
Despite a nagging back injury, Aiple has proven her mettle by starting every game for the Aggies this season. In addition to her prowess as a setter, the 6-foot, 1-inch Aiple is also one of the team leaders in blocks, and her teammates and coaches rave about her drive to succeed and improve in all areas of the game.
"I remember trying to run out on the court to be in a drill or hit in a drill, recalled Aiple, "and I was told, 'No, they hit too hard! Get off!'"
Aiple began playing club volleyball at age 11, but at that time was so small that she played libero--a strictly defensive position on the back row of the court. Despite not putting up big offensive numbers or setting, it wasn't long before she was turning heads.
"I've known her aunt for a long time," Corbelli said. "She came up to me a long time ago and said, 'Laurie, I have a niece. She is 12 years old, but she's going to be good.' And I'm sitting here thinking, how can you tell a 12-year-old is going to be good? And she says, 'I'm telling you, she has an instinct for volleyball. She's got beautiful skills already. It's come to her very easily. I'll be coaching her in high school, so I'm sure you'll see her.'"
At 14 years old, after moving from the back row to outside hitter, Aiple wasn't sure what to do next.
"During tryouts, I kind of didn't really know where to go," she said. "It was kind of a big year, and they said, 'Let's see what you look like setting.' I went to go set, and I had really good hands for some reason. I felt so confident in that position. Setting really felt like home."
Corbelli didn't initially make the connection between Aiple and Watson until she saw her play more around the age of 15.
"I started watching her play and I thought, 'Oh my goodness. This kid is for real.' She played the game with such instinct and natural ability. We kept her on our radar, and that's how it all started."
Aiple, who played for her aunt at Round Rock High School, began to put up some incredible numbers. When the time came to start thinking about college, Aiple had several premier coaches and programs vying for her signature. She wasn't quite sure where she would enroll, but she knew one thing: she planned to leave the state of Texas.
UCLA, a perennial powerhouse, quickly rose to the top of her wish list. But Aiple's parents told her to do her homework and pick out a school or two close to home just in case things didn't work out in Westwood.
"I decided to take a visit to A&M," Aiple said. "That was kind of the first time I'd really ever contacted them, and this was at the tail end of my recruiting process. I came here on a visit and fell in love with it. I didn't want to leave. I knew right away this is where I have to play volleyball.
"Obviously everything worked out really well."
That is an understatement.
Aiple burst on to the collegiate scene, becoming the most decorated freshman in the history of the program. She led the team to a 20-win season and an NCAA Tournament berth after a season in which she rewrote the A&M record book for assists.
In 2015, Aiple and her teammates brought the first conference championship in school history back to Aggieland. For her efforts, she was named the league's Player of the Year, becoming only the second A&M player to earn the award. Aiple was also named to the AVCA All-America team for the second consecutive year.
"There was no doubt in my mind that Steph deserved (that award), because of the work she puts in and all the things she has to go through on a daily basis," said teammate Victoria Arenas. "She conquers a lot. I was so overwhelmingly excited for her. She doesn't work hard to get those titles, but when you work that hard and are that consistent and are the type of player that she is and as driven as she is, those things come."
As those accolades and achievements have arrived, Aiple's parents have had the biggest smiles of all. And for someone like Stephanie, to whom family means everything, having her family nearby to share in the celebration is special.
"My family has supported me from day one," Aiple said. They are so involved in my volleyball career. They are at every home game possible. If they could go to every away game they would. My dad records every single game and probably watches it 100 times. He thinks it's so cool and so fun. They have both supported me so much and been there through it all. It's cool to be able to follow in their footsteps. I think 20 years from now, I'll find it even more amazing than I do now."
What's even more incredible for Aiple is to be able to live this dream at Texas A&M, in a conference like the SEC, and to do it all just 90 miles from home.
"I get to play against these amazing schools each week," Aiple says. "I took a step back after the Texas match (earlier this year) and thought, 'Growing up I used to come to this gym and watch them play every single match. Now I'm here playing.' This is a dream come true for me. The position I'm in, that is just something I never take for granted. It is such an honor to compete at the highest level every day."
Matt Simon, director of digital media for 12th Man Productions, is a 1998 graduate of Texas A&M University.
To those who support student-athletes by giving, I want to say thanks and gig 'em.
Without them, many young people who aren't financially stable or can't provide an education for themselves have a great opportunity. It makes A&M a better place."