“The unfortunate part is we weren’t supposed to be blocking on that play that she got hit in the head,” Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio said in February 2021.
That play was the one that knocked then-freshman middle blocker/opposite China Rai Crouch out of a match and, ultimately, out of the rest of her freshman season.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed that she’ll be okay,” Rubio continued that day. “She said she was fine after the game but you never know with these kinds of injuries.”
Crouch still remembers it that way, too. It happened on Feb. 21, 2021 in a four-set win over Oregon State, and being okay took a long time.
“It was a very strong player and I shouldn't have jumped for that ball,” Crouch said on Wednesday. “And it did mess me up a little bit longer because it hit my eye and that’s not the first time I got hit in my eye for a concussion. So I had to see a lot of eye doctors, get cleared with that, and work on my vision again.”
Crouch didn’t return that season, which was the delayed and shortened season played in the spring of 2021. Often a prolonged absence after an injury is an indication that the player intends to transfer or that she will take a medical retirement.
Things became even more mysterious when Crouch did not return for the fall 2021 season but did not transfer, either. All Rubio would say was that she was taking a “medical gap year” and would return this year.
That was still the explanation when she returned to the roster this season. It turns out that the medical reasons for her absence were positive rather than because she was rehabbing an injury or suffering from prolonged after-effects of the concussion.
“I was on maternity leave, actually,” Crouch said. “I have a son. He’s 10 months today.”
Hudson Isaiah was born in December 2021, just over a week after the Wildcats’ season came to an end at the hands of UNLV in the NIVC.
Crouch spent the year off with her mother, who had moved to Las Vegas from Southern California after her daughter left to attend UA. Crouch is back with her team this year, but it’s been slow going.
She didn’t get to do much in the way of keeping her volleyball skills up or improving them during her year off.
“I was in a new state so it was kind of hard to find a volleyball team to work with,” Crouch said. “So I mainly worked on just getting back my fitness.”
Things were starting to pick up this season. She was subbed into the match against Arizona State on Sept. 21, playing opposite instead of middle blocker. Three days later, she was back in against Utah.
“It was definitely a rush,” Crouch said. “I was like, ‘Oh, yes! I finally get to step on the floor!’ I wish I would have blocked someone but everyone decided to tip over me when I got to the court. I’m like, take all the fun out of everything, but it was fine. I wish I had a little bit more time. I understand due to my position and my off year that I need some time to build back up to the player that I was freshman year and possibly get better.”
Things got even more complicated after those matches. Crouch suffered yet another concussion.
“This is kind of the same concussion [as the one in 2021] because I got hit in the eye again,” Crouch said. “So we’re just making sure nothing else is wrong after we just went through that whole thing my freshman year.”
Arizona could certainly use her. At 6-foot-6, Crouch is the tallest player on the roster. Although she played middle blocker her freshman season, she came to Tucson as an opposite. Puk Stubbe, who has played opposite for the past season-and-a-half, is listed at six feet tall.
Rubio doesn’t know when she will be able to take the court with the Wildcats again, though. She said that she has been dealing with light sensitivity, especially under the bright lights in McKale Center. So, she has been away from practice.
“The medical people say it’s not good for her to be in practice and in the game,” Rubio said. “She got hurt the week before Oregon, and then last week, and now going on the third week. So I don’t know. I just don’t know what you’re gonna get with China right now.”
He would love to have her back on a more regular basis.
“We’re not big enough,” Rubio said about some of his team’s woes this season. “That’s where we lose somebody like China, 6’6”. You put somebody 6-6 in front of [USC’s Skylar Fields], it changes her mindset. It’s like having a 7-3 center and trying to drive the lane. A little guard in the lane on a 7-3 center. You’re not gonna go it.”
Crouch was part of the highly-ranked class that also included Jaelyn Hodge, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, and Emery Herman.
“One of the reasons why we were ranked seventh in the country that year was because of China,” Rubio said.
With the other three making big impacts on the court, it would be huge for Arizona if Crouch could join them again.