Amanda Fago, left, and Abby O’Connor, right, have been teammates since the third grade. Together they play a vital role for the women’s volleyball team. (Maggie LaFleur)

By Darren Zancan

Initially, Amanda Fago thought she could play through the pain in her right shoulder. But as the 2007 volleyball season progressed, so did the pain. Finally, she made the trip to the doctor, seeking an opinion about what was causing the pain. The news was worse than she originally thought: a torn labrum in her right shoulder, which would keep her out of action nearly nine months. She would miss the entire 2008 season.

“The doctor walked in and told me the news,” Fago said. “I just broke down.”

Luckily, Fago did not make the trip alone, her best friend and Colonel volleyball teammate Abby O’Connor, came along for moral support.

“This was new territory for us,” O’Connor said. “All I could do was hug her. Honestly, there’s not much you can say. I was there when she needed me.”

Fago and O’Connor met in first grade at Saint Margaret of York in Cincinnati. Before they became friends, their mothers became friends.

“If our moms became friends, then we knew we would become friends,” Fago said.

It wasn’t until third grade that they would join forces on the volleyball court.

Almost 14 years later, the duo is still together, best friends and teammates.

O’Connor said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re in this together,” she said. “When you’re that close to someone, with that chemistry and history, you lean on them.”

Fago and O’Connor know what it’s like to lean on each other. They led their eighth grade team to two city championships. Fago was the setter, while Amanda played in the middle. Four of the eight players on their eighth grade team now play Division One volleyball.

A year later, both players went on to play high school volleyball at two different schools. When they competed against each other, both girls admitted it was like playing against themselves.

“It was weird because I knew her tendencies, so it was hard to beat her,” O’Connor said.

But the duo would again team-up to play traveling club volleyball.

That’s where their futures became a little more interesting and a little bit clearer.

Ironically, neither would have thought they would end up playing together, again, at Eastern.

O’Connor was recruited as an “understudy” of sorts to Brittany Nobilio.

“Brittany was one of the more decorated players we had,” Head Coach Lori Duncan said. “We knew she was going to be leaving soon, so we wanted to groom someone to take that spot. Filling the shoes of Brittany was hard, but we felt Abby could do it. We knew we wouldn’t get another Brittany, but Abby has defined the role for herself.”

O’Connor was offered a scholarship to play for Eastern as a libero, which is a defensive specialist, the same position as Nobilio.

Fago received a scholarship offer from East Tennessee State. But after watching the Colonels win another Ohio Valley Conference championship, she knew her heart belonged to Eastern. Initially there was not a scholarship available for Fago, but upon her second visit, one opened up and was offered to her.

“I knew I wanted to come here,” Fago said. “The people here are really invested into this team. Everyone backs you.”

Neither of the two planned out that their collegiate playing careers would be together. They almost thought high school club would be the end of the road.

One of the reasons O’Connor and Fago picked Eastern was because of the deep tradition of winning. Both players come from winning programs, so the decision was easy.

“The program (Eastern’s) is so rich in history that you come in here and expect to win a championship,” O’Connor said.

But for the first time in their playing careers, they would experience something new; a losing season.

The Colonels finished 5-25 in 2007 and 6-23 in 2008, something neither player is used to.

Losing did not sit well with Fago.

“Eastern pays for us to play here,” she said. “They provide travel, food and everything for us. And we go out there and play like that. We didn’t represent Eastern. I would wake up every day and ask myself, ‘Am I really alive?'”

Last season started off the same for the Colonels, losing their first 12 games.

“What hurt us last year was our conditioning,” Duncan said. “The level of competition we played was very good. If you are not in the condition you need to be in to play the game, you will be left behind. We struggled. We lost. But as we developed, we started to win.”

Fago called October “Rocktober” because the team started to win. Needing four victories to make the OVC tournament, the Colonels did the unthinkable, winning those four games.

Most teams would feel immense pressure, and Fago, O’Connor and the other Colonels just went to play.

“We had nothing to lose,” O’Connor said. “Really, I mean, there was no pressure. If we lost, we were out.”

They eventually lost in the first round of the OVC tournament, but something was born again, a winning mentality.

“We have it,” Fago said. “We just need to bring it out.”

O’Connor was named second team All-Ohio Valley Conference in 2009 and moved into sixth place on Eastern’s all-time digs list with 1,332 digs.

“She’s analytical and she’s bright,” Duncan said. “She’s a leader on the court. She has those tenacious and persistent qualities we look for.”

Fago came back from her injury and worked her way into a starting role. She was tied for fourth on the team with 19 blocks and sixth on the team in kills with 87 in 2009.

“She was persistent enough that she created a starting role by not giving up,” Duncan said. “Those are traits we don’t give players. They deserve the credit.”

With one season left together as Colonels, Fago and O’Connor look to make the most of their opportunities, which includes beating Morehead State (0-8 against them) and bringing home a championship.

The two wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When you’ve played with someone so long, how can you not love playing with someone you’ve done it your whole life with?” O’Connor said. “It is special.

Abby O’Connor was brought in to play libero, which is a defensive specialist, for the Colonels. (Maggie LaFleur)