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September 19, 2012

Digging Deep

By: Marc Mullen

Jennifer Wiker is doing everything possible to make sure her final season as a Tech volleyball player ends on a positive note

It has been labeled the most-watched event ever in U.S. TV history, according to Nielson Company, a corporate conglomerate that measures such things, and why not? The 2012 London Olympics provided everything that intense sports fans and even marginal fans could ask for in a two-week span, with just too many storylines to mention even one.

However, for most of the events held during an Olympic season, this is the only time that true fans of non-mainstream sports – or even athletes in that sport – can watch the ultimate competition at the highest level imaginable before it fades away for the next four years.

This is definitely true for volleyball, the sport in which Virginia Tech’s Jennifer Wiker (pronounced Wick-er) excels. She tasted a bit of that USA Volleyball experience earlier this year and came away from it wanting more.

“I loved watching the Olympics, especially after this experience. I saw people that helped out with our event on TV with the Olympic team, which was pretty cool,” she said. “All the girls that they talked about at the tryout … they would say, ‘This girl does this. Why don’t you try that?’ And then I actually got to see them do it.

“When you’re in middle school, you watch the high school girls. When you’re in high school, you watch a college game, and you see things they do and try them. Now, I’m in college, so to see the Olympic team, it’s the next step to watch and to learn from those players. So I loved watching it. I wish they showed volleyball a lot more often. I think it helps players get better and helps our sport get recognized.”

Wiker’s experience began in March, as she and a few other Tech players travelled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to try out for the national squad. USA Volleyball selected 48 players who did not make the squad but still had collegiate eligibility remaining, to participate in the U.S. Women’s National A2 Team Program in June in Columbus, Ohio.

“We were out there for about 10 days, and it was eat and sleep volleyball. That’s literally all we did,” Wiker said of her Colorado experience. “We had two-a-days. We would wake up. Eat breakfast. Go to practice. Eat lunch. Take a nap. Go to the second practice. Eat dinner and then go to bed.

“We had about three or four days of training, so we started out with drills and position work, and we were evaluated. They were always taking stats. Then after two days, they split us into the four teams, making even teams. We started practicing with just our team, so we could learn to work together. We had two days of team practices and then the competitions.”

Wiker played on the USA White team and helped the squad to the gold medal in the playoffs, as they defeated the USA Gold squad 3-0 in the finals. She had six kills in the final match and tallied 16 kills in the tournament.

But it wasn’t winning the title that she will remember the most about the experience. It was what she learned, and maybe more importantly, how it made her feel.

“It was definitely harder there because I always felt pressure to do well,” she said. “I knew every single touch I did was being stated. Here, we do stats, but not when we are in drills. It just made me more aware of the importance of every single touch.

“It also made me feel like a younger player. It brought me back to what it was like to start all over again. I was starting with a new team, with girls that were more advanced than me. So to learn from them and to kind of start over again, that was kind of a cool feeling as a fifth-year senior … just to kind of go back to that.”

When she was looking to start with her last “new” team – her college team – Wiker, a native of Charlotte, N.C., visited many of the ACC schools because of the central location of many of the colleges in the conference. She believes that Betsy Horowitz, who played for Tech from 2006-09 and was a classmate (South Mecklenburg High) and club teammate (Carolina Juniors) of hers back in Charlotte, helped her get noticed by the Tech coaching staff.

“I liked how close it was to my house,” Wiker said about Virginia Tech. “I liked the academics. The business school is really good here, and the coaches here just seemed very involved with the players. They were very outgoing and reached out to me. They seemed excited to have me here on campus.

“Other coaches did the visit and showed a little bit of interest, but not as much as this school. I felt like I was really wanted here, and they had a good plan. They told me about the redshirt thing, and it sounded like a good idea for me, so it just seemed like an overall good fit.”

The “redshirt thing” was having her sit out her first year of college because the coaching staff saw a tall girl with a lot of potential, but a player who was not ready for the physical grind of a college season. In high school, she had gotten by on her height, and the staff figured she had the chance to get to the next level, but just needed time to get into the shape necessary to compete in the ACC.

“I was not really college ready, let’s say, in terms of conditioning or body composition,” Wiker said. “In the first semester, I lost 17 pounds of fat and gained 10 pounds of muscle. I had never been in a weight room before, so it was just to get me ready.

“They [Tech’s coaches] knew I wouldn’t really be ready to play my freshman year, so it would have been a waste of eligibility, and I think it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. I’m so happy that they did because I’ve come so far that if I would have ended [her career] last season and I wouldn’t have had this season, I would have been so disappointed. I think this will be my best season yet.”

Wiker cannot be missed on a volleyball court, as she reaches a height of 6-foot-3, the tallest player on the team. Her dad, Bob, stands at 6-8, while her mom, Barb, was 6-2. She’s also probably the only player on the court wearing a pink armband, even though it isn’t a “Dig Pink” game.

“My mom passed away when I was 7,” Wiker said. “She had breast cancer. It was the rare kind, IBC (inflammatory breast cancer, which accounts for 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed), so they didn’t know what it was.

“So it was like a year and a half before they finally correctly diagnosed her, and it was kind of a little late. But that’s why I wear a pink armband. People probably have no idea why I wear this pink armband on my left arm, but that’s for her.”

She said it was hard on her dad trying to raise two daughters – Wiker has an older sister, Susan, who is three years older and got her into the sport – but he had a tremendous support system of family in the area.

“We have a lot of family in Charlotte, so my mom’s aunt was very supportive and helped out with the ‘mom’ role a little bit,” Wiker said. “But my dad was very motivated to push us because he realized we were his only family left, and so, he’s always been very strict with us in school. I give him all the credit for where I’ve gotten to today because I’ve never been able to slack off.

“I think I missed 10 days of school total ever because he never let me miss school, and he’s just been a great supporter and just put everything he had into me and my sister. I think he’s going to have a hard time when I am done because he’s got no one left to watch.”

Seeing how family rallies around one another and supports each other may explain why Wiker has enjoyed her time at Tech and is really appreciative of everything that the school offers for student-athletes. She identified the Student-Athlete Academic Support Services department, a group of people who help student-athletes balance the demands of academics and athletics, as one of those things.

Reflecting on what she thinks has been the reason for the team’s success since her arrival in 2008 – the team has won 77 games since she stepped on campus, the most in a four-year period since 1992-95 – she pointed to Habitudes, a curriculum designed by Dr. Tim Elmore, who founded Growing Leaders, a non-profit organization created to develop emerging leaders. His curriculum focuses on teaching leadership habits and attitudes through the power of an image, a conversation or an experience.

Tech’s Office of Student Life started this voluntary 10-week curriculum with the Hokies’ teams last year. Many student-athletes say that this course gets them to thinking and helps them to become better leaders. In return, their teams become closer.

“I feel like that has gotten us to open up and talk as a team,” Wiker said. “We’re more understanding of each other, and it’s brought our team closer together outside the court, so I feel like, once we step on the court, we have such a good relationship that we’re just able to play better together.

“There’s no difference between the freshmen and the seniors. You can’t tell the difference – besides who has more ice bags on themselves. I think we are more understanding of who should be leaders and when to be leaders. It has made our program stronger as a family rather than just as a bunch of volleyball players. I think we’ve been able to get ourselves out there more to have better seasons, more winning, and we are able to bring in stronger players.”

With her final season already underway, getting a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament – the ultimate competition at the highest level for a collegiate – is all she could ask for to end her college career.