VOLLEYBALL: Natural Born Killer

Michael Casagrande

Just four years ago, Jessie Wagner was playing basketball in high school. Then, upon the advice of a friend, she traded in her knee-length shorts for Spandex.

The rest is history.

Wagner waltzed onto campus in August as a bright-eyed freshman with little confidence, according to volleyball coach Travis Hudson.

“Jessie is an ultra-talented kid that is fairly new to the game,” Hudson said. “It was more of a confidence battle for Jessie. As she has gained confidence throughout this year, I think she has really taken off.”

A casual fan might be amazed to hear Wagner has been spiking the volleyball for a mere four years, but Hudson knows better.

“Jessie’s God-given talents far outweigh her volleyball skill right now,” he said. “But that’s what excites me the most . is that I think the sky is the limit for her.”

Wagner’s ability to finish a point with a thundering kill has provided momentum on several occasions this season. The sight of Wagner’s left arm cocking back for a spike has sent opponents running for cover.

The 18-year-old from Franklin, Ind., picked Western over Indiana of the Big Ten and South Carolina of the Southeastern Conference.

What separated the Lady Toppers from her other big-name suitors, she says, was the warmth of the volleyball family.

“I got along great with the girls, and I really liked Travis.” Wagner said.

As a senior at Franklin Community High School, her 381 kills earned Wagner a selection to the second team all-state squad and an appearance in the Class 4-A title game.

And while the first few weeks on the Hill were rocky for the lanky lefty, Wagner’s play has picked up during the Lady Toppers’ 12-game win streak.

She ranks sixth in the conference with 360 total kills, just behind sophomore hitter Amanda Schiff’s team-leading 388.

Western’s perfect run through the Sun Belt schedule has been sparked by Wagner, who recorded double-digit kills in nine of 10 conference victories. Her 155 kills in Sun Belt play ranks fourth in the league.

After posting 24 kills against Arkansas Little-Rock on Oct. 5, Wagner became the only freshman to be named Sun Belt Player of the Week this season.

Last Friday, Wagner one-upped herself when she set a career high with 25 kills in a barn-burner against bitter Sun Belt rival Florida International.

Wagner’s success between the lines speaks for itself, but it’s her personality that won the respect of her teammates.

“Jessie is definitely one of a kind,” teammate Lyndsey Broerman said. “She has a great personality, and she’s so much fun to be with, on and off the court. She’s brought so much to the team this year.”

After going down with the second knee injury of her career in early September, Broerman left a distinct hole at the net. At first, fellow-rookie Crystal Towler filled the void with her dominating early-season play. But recently, Wagner has taken charge.

“With me going down, everybody had to switch around, but I don’t think that stopped her or anybody,” Broerman said. “She stepped up and filled the shoes, and knew that if this time she was doing bad, she wasn’t coming out.”

Now she’s a full-fledged force, a focal point in Western’s youthful attack.

And the soft-spoken star knows what she is expected to do when the Lady Toppers migrate to Miami for the Sun Belt Tournament later this month.

“I’ll go out there and play how I know how to play,” Wagner said.

Until then, she’ll try to keep Western’s 12-game overall streak, 18-game Sun Belt roll and 23-game home streak alive. Western plays conference foes Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock this weekend before closing out the home season against Middle Tennessee Nov. 12.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]