2021 Gazette Girls Volleyball Player of the Year: Jillian Apanell, Frontier

  • Frontier’s Jillian Apanell (12) hits over Douglas blocker Abbby Damasio (7) in the third set of the MIAA Div. 5 state quarterfinal game Thursday night in South Deerfield. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Frontier’s Jillian Apanell (12) hits over Douglas blocker Ava Lemire (18) in the second set of the MIAA Div. 5 state quarterfinal game Thursday night in South Deerfield. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Frontier’s Jillian Apanell (12) tips the ball against Douglas in the second set of the MIAA Div. 5 state quarterfinal game Thursday night in South Deerfield. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Frontier’s Jillian Apanell (12), right, tips the ball over Turners Falls’ Skylei LaPan (7) and Abbigail Holloway (8) in the second set earlier this season at Goodnow Gymnasium in South Deerfield. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Frontier’s Jillian Apanell serves against Southwick in the second set of the Western Mass. Class C volleyball final Saturday afternoon at West Springfield High School. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2022 8:51:30 PM

Jillian Apanell asked Pioneer Valley Juniors volleyball club director George Mulry for secrecy.

The soon-to-be Frontier Regional junior had a goal that she wanted to stay between them. In hopes of moving from her middle hitter position to outside hitter for the Redhawks, Apanell sought to improve her passing, defense and serve receiving to a point where it would be statistically the wrong decision to sub her out of the match. Middle hitters typically rotate out when they move into the back row in favor of liberos and defensive specialists that handle the ball better, while outside hitters stay in for their all-around skill sets.

She hoped to keep that information from her high school coach, Sean MacDonald – also a club director at PV Juniors –because he’d expressed apprehension about her moving positions or passing before.

“I wasn’t that good at it,” Apanell said. “I wanted to prove it to him without him knowing it was my goal. It would be more satisfying if he didn’t know it was my goal, and it happened anyway.”

Mulry, also the Longmeadow High School coach, told MacDonald almost immediately because he knew his co-director would be delighted to hear it. 

“I love that goal," MacDonald said. “And she basically did it.”

Though Apanell, the 2021 Gazette Girls Volleyball Player of the Year, still started the season in the middle, MacDonald started working her outside more and more as the season progressed until she became a fixture. Apanell made the Massachusetts Volleyball Coaches Association Division 3, 4, 5 All-State team after amassing 292 kills with 93 digs, 82 aces and 11 blocks.

“They’re two different jobs. Middles don’t pass. Middle hitters get really good sets from really good passes, outside hitters get all the other crap. They shove it over to you and it’s like, ‘good luck, do something with this.’ We call it taking out the trash,” MacDonald said. “They have a lot of imperfect situations. It’s a pretty tough job.”

None of that is commentary on the qualify of the setter, Frontier junior Sydney Scanlon – also an all-state selection, or her passes. Not every play in volleyball is perfect, and outside hitters have to manage more of the game’s muddier points.

Apanell laughs now watching video of herself from early in the season and the choices she made attacking certain sets. She was still learning that she didn't need to hit everything as hard as she could. Sometimes with experience comes grace and subtlety.

“I was getting a lot more sets, too. It’s a lot to adjust to. I think it was a lot of fun," Apanell said. “By the end of the season I was learning different shots I can use on the outside and how to take different sets and use them to my advantage. Even if I can’t hit them super hard I can place them somewhere smart to put the other team out of system or score on a smarty placed tip.”

Working with Scanlon eased the transition. The best friends “share a brain,” MacDonald said. They’ve developed an unspoken chemistry and understanding on the court playing both for Frontier and on club teams. When the Redhawks were moving Apanell outside, they started with a “31” set between the middle and outside positions that she’s always been able to hit.

“That was a good constant. Sydney makes my life so much easier,” Apanell said. “She’s an amazing setter.”

Because they work together so well, Frontier revved its offense to warp speed. The Redhawks could set Apanell on the outside as quickly as they could their middles, which gave defenses more problems than answers more often than not.

“When we lost that tempo, we lost that connection,” MacDonald said.

Apanell tore her ACL on the fifth point of the first set against Mount Greylock in the state semifinals. She had two kills in the set and finished a ball to the floor to put the Redhawks up 5-0, landing on both feet.

Then her left knee buckled and she crumpled to the gym floor at Chicopee Comp. When MacDonald and the Chicopee Comp athletic trainer first approached her, Apanell’s voice wouldn’t leave her throat from the shock. Her knee felt numb, but not in pain.

“I couldn’t say anything. It was scary," Apanell said. “I landed and my knee went out and in.”

The pain came after she was helped to the bench. And the tears.

“In the back of my head, could this be an ACL?” Apanell said. “It wasn’t even the pain. I was so angry I couldn’t be out there playing anymore. I wanted more than anything to be out there playing. I was angered I couldn’t be there playing, too.”

Her mom Stephanie Apanell asked if they should go to the emergency room. Apanell wasn’t leaving the bench or her team.

“It was super hard to watch. I’ve never cried more than that night. It was awful to watch. I just love all the girls on the team so much and I love volleyball so much," Jillian Apanell said. “It was awful watching it, but at the same time I loved watching it.”

The Redhawks swept the Mounties to reach their 13th state final.

“I was really impressed with the mental toughness of the team,” MacDonald said. “It was a tough night.”

And bittersweet for Apanell. She and Scanlon talked about winning their state title for years. Both saw the floor when Frontier claimed its 10th championship over Rockland in 2019. But they were just freshmen and didn’t feel like they played big enough roles to claim the championship as theirs.

“It was my worst nightmare coming true," Apanell said. “It’s such a dream to win a state championship and be the players that are making a difference. I was so heartbroken now that the chance was not mine. Now if we were to have won that game, I would’ve been happy, but I wouldn’t have felt like it was mine.”

Apanell still showed up at practice the next day on crutches. She learned she had a torn ACL, a bucket handle meniscus tear where the ligament tore, was twisted and was caught between her knee and shin bone, plus an MCL sprain and a tibia fracture. Her season was definitely over.

“It was probably the hardest thing ever to walk in there and see the girls and know what happened,” Apanell said.

She kept showing up and provided valuable insight both to MacDonald, having played with the team, and for younger players filling into her position and role.

The rest of the Redhawks carried her with them onto the court for the state final. They wrote No. 12 on their hands in black marker and wore ribbons in their hair.

“They really wanted to win that for her,” MacDonald said.

Paulo Freire prevailed in four sets, ending the season for the rest of the team.

Apanell underwent surgery on her left knee Dec. 3 and had to miss the Frontier volleyball banquet in recovery. The team included her over FaceTime.

She began physical therapy three days after surgery and has focused on her rehab, slowly increasing the number of degrees her knee can bend through daily exercises. Now she can bear a small amount of weight on it. She knows her spring softball season won't happen and she’ll miss a summer club season where she would’ve played on one of PV Juniors’ top touring teams.

It's an imperfect situation for an aspiring college athlete. But MacDonald promised to introduce her to college coaches. She's worried they won’t want her because of her injury, but MacDonald has assured her that players can come back as good or better from ACL injuries and college coaches know that.

She’s focused on returning for her senior volleyball season at Frontier. There’s still another state championship to chase. 

“That is my biggest motivation, for sure," Apanell said. “We want nothing more than to go win the state title.”

Girls Volleyball All-StarsFirst team

Yanibel Agusto-Flores, senior, Smith Vocational

Erica Anderson, senior, South Hadley

Jillian Apanell, junior Frontier

Audrey Bowen, junior, Amherst

Brooke Davis, junior, Frontier

Eve Dougan, junior, Frontier

Jordan Dunham, senior, Smith Vocational

Delima Fournier, senior, Easthampton

Alysha Izquierdo, senior, Holyoke

Jaqueline Jourdain, senior, Holyoke

Delaney MacPhetres, senior, Amherst

Annabel Ogden, sophomore, Amherst

Skylar Raskevitz, senior, Easthampton

Sydney Scanlon, junior, Frontier

Second team

Maggie Barr, junior, Easthampton

Liza Beigel, sophomore, Amherst

Jaycee Beaulieu, junior, Smith Vocational

Marlina Devine, senior, Easthampton

Lilah Evans, senior, Frontier

Elise Friedrichs, senior, Frontier

Karyna Gaston Feliciano, senior, Holyoke

Lauren Majerowski, senior, Belchertown

Amber Pensivy, senior, Smith Vocational

Allie Sowers, senior, South Hadley

Hannah Wood, senior, Belchertown


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