Michigan outside hitter Ally Davis just rolls with the punches.
“After everything I’ve been through, I definitely feel that it has had a very positive impact on me,” Davis said.
“As a person I’ve just grown up a lot, from the injuries to dealing with my sister, I’ve realized what it is truly important. And I know that sounds super cliche, but your family is really the most important thing and sometimes you get so wrapped up in volleyball and thinking it’s the most important thing in your life, but when you take a step back, you’re able to realize what really matters.”
Here’s her story in a nutshell:
As a freshman, Davis, a 6-foot-1 product of Hinsdale, Ill., in suburban Chicago where she played for Sports Performance, was in the mix for a starting job for the Maize and Blue. But late in that season, her older sister Ashley, who was battling cancer, needed stem cells.
Ally was the perfect donor.
However, the process was going to put a halt to her season.
You want some irony? Michigan got hot and made it to the NCAA final four.
We’ll get back to that in a minute. But fast forward two years and Davis, playing well again, comes flying out of the back row, lands wrong and blows out her knee.
And now, two years after that as a fifth-year senior, she’s grinding through the usual bumps and bruises and fighting for playing time. And Ashley Davis, now 27, is still grinding herself, battling the different cancers she’s had seemingly forever.
That’s the short version.
On the immediate front, Michigan is 8-1 and ranked No. 23 in the latest AVCA Division I poll. The Wolverines are home this weekend to play Auburn, Eastern Michigan and Colgate before opening Big Ten play.
Davis has played in 13 of Michigan’s 31 sets, with 14 kills while hitting .256. She’s got 11 digs, a couple of block assists and an ace. She didn’t play when Michigan was upset by Pitt last Sunday and it’s going to be hard to get back into the starting lineup.
But all that pales to real life when you know her story.
“She’s a great kid and really connects with her teammates,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “It wasn’t surprising what she did for her sister. She’s one of those total giver people. We refer in our gym to people as producers or consumers. We have this acronym PMTYC, Produce More Than You Consume. She in my mind is one of those ultimate producers, constantly always making other people better, connecting with other people.
“She’s really fun but she’s also grown into being a very mature kid. She’s a really good leader because she’s got a good sense of knowing what’s right and keeping it fun.”
Let’s go back to the fall of 2012.
“She was making an impact on that lineup,” Rosen recalled. He said the Davis family gave him a head’s up that Ally might be called upon to help her sister and that once she started taking medication to prepare for the stem-cell cultivation, volleyball wasn’t an option.
“And then we got on that run, but one of the coolest things (in the NCAA Tournament) when we won matches — and we saw this on the videos — Ally was running around the huddle in a full sprint,” Rosen said. “It was a hilarious lap that she did. She had so much enthusiasm.
“And I remember being so proud of this kid.”
Rosen was taken aback by how unselfish Davis was, but that was no surprise to her teammates, especially her roommate and the team’s other fifth-year senior, Kelly Murphy.
“Ally didn’t even hesitate to help her sister,” Murphy said. “She puts those she loves before anything else and it wasn’t even a question. She was worried about missing anything with the team. It wasn’t about playing, but she wanted to be there to support the team. Of course, everyone understood.”
Giving the stem cells, evidently, was physically grueling, but Davis never let on, Murphy said.
“For her, it was like it was nothing compared to what her sister was going through,” Murphy said.
Laura Davis, Ally’s mother, remembers it as “kind of a crazy time.”
Everyone, of course, wanted to help Ashley, but no one wanted Ally to sacrifice her volleyball after she had worked so hard.
Ally recalled getting a call from her sister who told her the cancer had come back and she was apologizing.
“I was wondering why she was apologizing, and she told me I was a candidate to do a stem cell transplant for her,” Ally said. “I was trying to be as calm as I could and said absolutely, whatever I needed to do, but she kept apologizing for taking me away in the middle of the season.”
Ally went and talked to Rosen the next day and began the process of preparing for the surgery.
“That was a really stressful time,” she recalled, “but I had a ton of support here.”
They took the stem cells during five-hour procedures in which she had tubes attached to each arm.
“it was my understanding that they filtered all the blood out of my body and into a machine. It would go out of my right arm and back in through my left arm. They would filter it and I went a few times and the shots I was giving myself the weeks prior were drawing the stem cells from the bone marrow and my blood. It’s very complicated, but that’s how they simplified it for me.
“I was pretty tired the weeks after.”
Interestingly, Davis only gushes about the rest of that season, even though she was reduced to being a cheerleader.
“It was one of the best times of my volleyball career,” Davis said of Michigan’s NCAA run. “It was a really exciting time.”
Not that it didn’t hurt to not play.
“It stunk a little bit but whatever role I’ve been in I’ve taken it on. I’m a huge team player, so whatever role I’ve had I’ve adapted to, and the role you have may not be the one you want, but I was one of the loudest cheerleaders on the bench. I got a lot of compliments on my dance moves.”
Michigan lost in the national semifinals. The next season Davis, then a sophomore, played in 20 matches, averaged 1.88 kills per set, and had 19 blocks.
Then, in the eighth match of the 2014 season, against Purdue, “It was a little bit of a freak landing. It was our first Big Ten match of the year, I went up for a back-row attack and I just kind of landed funky on my right leg.
“I did get the kill, so I went out hitting a thousand. So there was a silver lining of the entire thing. It was extremely painful.”
She tore her ACL and cartilage.
“It was really unfortunate, because Kelly and I were the two outsides and we were working really hard. I was just starting to play six rotations and had trained really hard all summer and was in great shape. So it was frustrating.”
Davis knew she would be out at least six months, but nothing goes simply in her life.
“That’s not how things went. I had another surgery in July but at least I had Kelly with me.”
Indeed. About 10 days before Davis blew out her knee, Murphy, from Marietta, Ga., tore up her ankle.
“We were in the hospital at the same time and then we had our second surgeries around the same time,” Murphy said. “It definitely made it easier having someone I was close to go going through the same thing.”
When they got back, they sat on the bench together and “I would have my knee up,” Davis said, “and she would have her foot up.”
They’re not only teammates, but the oldest players on the team and only ones left from their incoming freshman class. Abby Cole is a true senior. Davis and Murphy? “We call ourselves the grandmas,” Davis said.
“I think if you asked Ally and me both how our college careers went, we definitely wouldn’t have predicted it or pictured it,” Murphy said. “But looking back I don’t think we would change anything. Injuries are a part of life. I know that and Ally knows that and a lot of players have gone through it.
“And we’re both pretty lucky because we both got an extra year here to continue our educations and continue our time with Michigan volleyball.”
Murphy, by the way, is a bio-psychology cognition neuroscience major — seriously — but when asked what she wants to do, she answered, “I don’t know,” with a laugh. Davis has her degree in communications and is getting her master’s with an eye toward medical sales, she said.
Their friendship and resilience astounds Laura Davis.
“And they are very happy for each other when the other gets to play. It’s like they’re living vicariously through each other,” Laura Davis said with a laugh.
As juniors in 2015, Davis played in 10 matches. She had 10 kills twice, in Big Ten matches against Iowa and Nebraska, but was never back to her old self.
Murphy, meanwhile, played in 19 matches and had double-figure kills three times for a team that finished 20-13 after losing to UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
This year, Davis and Murphy are co-captains. Murphy is in the lineup, third on the team with 87 kills and hitting .343. Davis said her knee is good but actually had a toe injury to start the season.
“My toenail did turn green and it fell off and they called me Shrek for a little bit,” she said with a laugh.
“Hopefully the rest of the way will be pretty smooth.”
That’s possible on the volleyball court, but tougher for Ashley Davis.
She was first was diagnosed with lymphoma in the form of a brain tumor at 12 and then got leukemia, which doctors think was a result of the first cancer treatments. It went dormant for seven years, but it was in Ally’s freshman year that it resurfaced. Since then she’s had masses in each breast and is currently in an immunology program, her mother said.
Laura Davis was impressed with how hard her daughter worked to return to volleyball, which is more or less the norm in the Davis family.
“She was bound and determined to come back, which is pretty amazing,” Laura Davis said.
“Just like her sister is still fighting today with her illness. These kids, I don’t know, both of them are like, that sucks, but I’m going to brush myself off and get bigger and better and faster and both of them have this sort of invincible mindset, which is great.”
Their mom laughed.
“They’re tough girls.”