For the past three years, Loudoun County’s volleyball team has had a tradition in which players assume call signs that represent their personality or story. Each player’s navy blue warmup shirt has that word scrawled on the back.

For senior Ella Solomon, Coach John Senchak chose the phoenix — a mythological bird known for ascending from its ashes. It is fitting, given Solomon’s journey from being bedridden with chronic Lyme disease to becoming a key contributor for the Captains.

“She’s our motivation to keep going because of what she’s been through,” senior teammate Alicia McCandless said.

Neither Solomon nor her parents recall a particular moment she started to feel sick or remember seeing a tick, which causes Lyme disease. But the symptoms certainly presented.

Solomon had nagging headaches daily for more than six years, prompting her parents to go to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore for answers. When Solomon received Lyme tests from doctors, the results were negative.

“The tests aren’t super accurate,” said her mother, Regina. “It may not be in your bloodwork at the moment, but it is still in your body.”

Solomon played volleyball during her freshman year at Tuscarora, but by the end of that year her health was failing, causing her to miss days at school. She transferred to Loudoun County and spent her sophomore and junior years at home with an instructor because she couldn’t get out of bed.

Her chronic Lyme caused coinfections such as Bartonella — a disease that triggers headaches, fevers and bone pain — and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which caused Solomon to faint when she stood for a long time.

She bounced from doctor to doctor; some felt they weren’t qualified to treat her illness. “You’re too sick for me” became a regular phrase they would say. Doctors sometimes sent Solomon to specialists they knew, but it could be weeks before the visit. In the meantime, her body fought more coinfections.

“Neurologist, gastroenterologist — you name the -ologists, we probably were there,” said her mother, who estimates Solomon has seen roughly 20 doctors.

Regina Solomon, a former Rutgers basketball player, made it her full-time job to take care of her daughter. She would read Ella’s textbooks to her and stay up until 2 a.m. searching the Internet for doctors, treatments, answers. Regina even scrolled through Facebook groups, talking to parents with shared experiences.

Senchak, who coached Solomon when she was at Tuscarora, noticed her volleyball potential quickly and had hoped to develop the 6-foot-1 middle blocker into a Division I player. When Senchak became the coach at Loudoun County three years ago, and after Solomon transferred there, he put her name on the roster, hoping for the day she would return to the court.

Solomon, meanwhile, became Loudoun County’s biggest cheerleader from afar. She would lay in bed and watch on her phone as the Captains competed in playoff games.

“It was gut-wrenching just to be away from the sport and the community that I love,” Solomon said.

In January 2020, Solomon, who had been receiving treatments to kill off the coinfections in her body, began feeling like her old self. She became an assistant coach on Senchak’s club team, where she got her body adjusted to playing volleyball.

“We had to take it day by day,” Senchak said. “But I’ve told her, Ella at 70 percent is better than any middle [blocker] I’ve ever seen.”

Just when Solomon felt well enough to return to in-person learning, the coronavirus pandemic picked up, disrupting her plans. “I was disappointed, but I was so grateful for how I was feeling that it didn’t matter the world was closed,” she said.

As Solomon sat in limbo, wondering whether she would get the chance to play for Loudoun County, she shifted her focus to playing in college. Solomon created a skills video and sent it to a handful of schools. When Rollins College, a Division II program in Florida, contacted her, she immediately felt a strong connection and committed.

Another opportunity emerged when Virginia allowed high school students to play fall sports in the spring. Though the family had initial concerns about Solomon playing amid the pandemic, her father, Ted, said it was a clear decision to let her play considering all the time she had already missed.

Solomon prides herself in being one of two team captains, a role Senchak bestowed on her at the start of this season. Excited to be playing, Solomon is the first one in the gym for practice, setting up the equipment. She continues to deal with symptoms of Lyme — headaches, fatigue — and sometimes has to remove herself from a drill.

When the Captains are tired, they will often look to Solomon for motivation. Her spirit and talent have helped Loudoun County to a 7-0 start.

Solomon had a huge grin stretched across her face when the announcer called her name during Loudoun County’s season opener. When she rose from the floor to spike the ball across the net, it felt as though she smacked away the past three years.

“I’m home,” Solomon told Senchak. “I’m finally home.”

Read more: