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Delaney Laper had her Division I dreams dashed in one freak fall.

A standout junior on North Tonawanda High School’s powerhouse girls volleyball team in 2010, Laper was already being recruited by Division II and III colleges when she tore up her knee in the sectional playoffs.

The injury prevented Laper from playing club volleyball as a junior and took her off the radar of most college recruiters.

Three years later, Laper is a junior college All-American who believes her ruptured right anterior cruciate ligament ultimately advanced her career.

“I remember that being the most devastating point in my career,” said Laper, now a sophomore at Niagara County Community College. “I knew it was one of the most important times for colleges to look at you and it was going to be a really long road to recovery.”

North Tonawanda was undefeated in the season and ahead in its Class A semifinal match when Laper got hurt.

“We had destroyed Hamburg in the first game, and we were all ready to move on,” Laper said. “We were already down our middle (hitter), and I went up for a hit and landed awkwardly. In a split second, I was on the ground. It was the biggest disappointment. Nobody thought it was going to end like that.”

After successful surgery performed by Dr. Andrew Stoeckl and a nine-month rehabilitation program with Ronald Brisette at Excelsior Orthopedics, Laper returned in time for her senior year.

“After nine months of hard rehab, I came back stronger,” Laper said.

But having missed the club season that is so vital to volleyball recruiting, Laper only had nonscholarship offers to play in college.

“Everything does happen for a reason, and that brought me to a better place,” Laper said. “It led me on the path to NCCC.”

Laper was attracted to the once-struggling program because of the recent success it had under coach Joe Daigler and his assistant, Lindsay Matikosh, both North Tonawanda natives.

Over the last five seasons, NCCC has gone 132-33 and reached the regional semifinals each year. The Thunderwolves won the regional championship in 2009 and 2011.

Laper is the Thunderwolves’ third NJCAA Division III All-American in three years, following Jessica Crooks, a Niagara Wheatfield graduate now playing at SUNY Buffalo State, and Kristine Ripson, a Lewiston-Porter graduate who is also the top player on NCCC’s women’s basketball team.

Daigler said that when he took over the program five years ago, he wouldn’t have even bothered to recruit a player the caliber of Laper.

“They have completely turned the program around,” Laper said. “You see their record, and the girls they are recruiting, and it definitely made me want to play there. And I thought it would be a good chance to show off for other colleges, like my junior year all over again.”

Laper was an all-conference, all-region and all-regional tournament selection last season and was third in voting for Region III MVP, which went to Ripson. In May, Laper was named NCCC’s Freshman Athlete of the Year.

As a sophomore, Laper set single-season records for digs (395), aces (120) and passing percentage (.769). She became the program’s career leader in attempts (1,769), digs (705), aces (120) and passing percentage (.768) and ranks second all-time in points (1,056) and kills (800), fourth in service points (393) and fifth in blocks (60).

“She is the finest serve receive player I have ever had,” Daigler said. “Talent-wise it was all there, and she came in with the mindset that she was going to buy in to whatever myself and Lindsay were trying to preach. Once she did that, her game advanced further, and she became a phenomenal player for us.”

Matikosh said sitting on the sidelines during club play three years ago helped Laper develop the technical aspects of her game.

“It might have been good for her getting hurt so young because it made her watch the game and see things that you don’t see when you are on the court,” said Matikosh, who played for the University at Buffalo and was a varsity assistant at North Tonawanda early in Laper’s career.

Laper credits Daigler and Matikosh for her refined game. “The coaches have taught me so much about the sport,” she said. “I’ve been playing for 11 or 12 years, and I have learned more in these last two years than I have in a long while.”

“She comes from an athletic family and is such a natural player,” Matikosh said. “I’m so proud, watching her from eighth grade and when she was coming to NCCC, I was so happy to finally get my hands on her. She has grown so much as a player and a person.”

Matikosh believes there are a lot of coaches who lament that Laper was not on the club volleyball scene three years ago. “They missed out,” she said, “either because they were afraid of her knee, or they didn’t get to see her.”

Laper wants to continue her volleyball career, but she isn’t sure where that will happen. Daigler said a few Division II and several Division III schools are already interested, and recruiting could heat up in the coming months as the club season gets underway. Laper would prefer to stay local, which could limit her playing opportunities.

Regardless of what the future holds, Laper is content with her career path.

“I can’t believe,” she said, “how well it has turned out.”