Game days are the worst days. While their teammates go through warm ups, get last minute instructions from the coaching staff and prepare to put everything they’ve got on the line, Lauren Gresham and Natalie Gower have to sit and watch.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. These dynamic juniors were penciled in to help St. Joseph’s Academy defend its Class 4 state volleyball championship. Gresham, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, and Gower, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker, were going to be major players in what was expected to be another stellar season for the Angels (15-5).

Now they sit on the bench, wearing street clothes with their left knees in protective sleeves after tearing their anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) and meniscus. “It’s hard to watch,” Gower, 16, says.

Gresham suffered her knee injury over the summer with her club team. She thought she’d tweaked her knee. The pain wasn’t as excruciating as she’d heard it can be with an ACL tear. She was blindsided when the doctor called the house, spoke with her mother and gave the diagnosis. “I didn’t think it was that bad,” Gresham, 16, says.

Accepting the news is devastating. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The rehabilitation process after having the ligament repaired is so physically exhausting it can break the will of the toughest athletes. The mantra most often associated with rehabbing your ACL is ‘the more it hurts the sooner you’ll be back.’ The process is slow, grueling and the rewards come in small bites. That’s a hard road to travel, especially if it’s your first major injury, as it was for both Gresham and Gower.

“I knew (rehab) was hard, but I’d only known one volleyball player that had done it,” Gresham says. “You don’t understand how hard it is until it’s you.” Making matters tougher for Gresham was the timing of it all. She had surgery one week before the start of school. She spent her first five weeks of the school year hobbling around St. Joe on crutches.

One of the people who went out of her way to lift Gresham’s spirits was Gower. She and Gresham formed a tight bond their freshman year at St. Joe. Gower spent her free time fetching treats and hanging out with Gresham. She wanted her injured friend to know she was there for her. Now they get to see plenty of one another. Unlike Gresham, Gower knew the moment she went down against Francis Howell about three weeks ago that her knee was in a bad way. She held out an inkling of hope but the pain was intense and she heard her knee pop. It didn’t help that Gresham gave her diagnosis right away—she had seen this before.

“As soon as I did it, I knew,” Gower says. Gower’s surgery is scheduled for later this month. She’s anxious to get it over with and start on the path to recovery. Gresham has been preparing her for what’s next. “She’s been telling me everything to expect,” Gower continues. “I want to get it over with. The week after surgery is the worst week of your life.”

There aren’t many bright spots to this situation but the girls are making the most of it. They say seeing the game from the bench has been enlightening. They see it like their coaches.

“Watching, you get a whole different perspective,” Gresham says. They have a new perspective on the harder parts of the season too. When their teammates are pushing through a brutal conditioning drill and want to be anywhere else but in that moment, Gower and Gresham wish their lungs and legs were burning that way. “I would give anything to run sprints and not be able to breathe,” Gresham says.