By: John Vogel, Youngstown State Athletics
It's been two months since Youngstown State junior setter Val Jeffery was standing on the Great Wall of China as she traveled across the world to showcase her volleyball skills. Now, with YSU's season fewer than two weeks away, she's hoping that the lessons she learned playing with some of the best players in the world will help the Penguins in 2015.
Jeffery and a group of star-studded Americans played six games in Beijing in June with Bring It Promotions, a company that specializes in international volleyball tours. Jeffery was asked to be part of the group that traveled with USA Volleyball because she was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. Collegiate National Team during a tryout in February. Among the talented players on Jeffery's team were five-time Olympian Danielle Scott and former AVCA National Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma Coble. Even though Jeffery wasn't on the national squad, her jerseys were navy blue and white and featured the American flag, and her team played in major venues against some of China's top teams.
"The arena we played at was huge," Jeffery said. "There were hundreds of Chinese people watching, and they loved volleyball. The atmosphere just made it feel really cool. I know I wasn't part of the USA Volleyball team, but to play with Americans in a foreign country and represent the United States in some small aspect made me feel proud."
Jeffery transferred to Youngstown State from High Point for the 2014 spring semester. She won a preseason battle to be starting setter at the beginning of the year, and the Pickerington, Ohio, native went on to lead YSU to its best record in 15 years and be named the Horizon League Setter of the Year. She was named a captain for 2015, and she's a big reason that the optimism surrounding YSU's program for this season and beyond is as high as it has been in almost two decades.
But her role was much different in China. Jeffery was the youngest player on the team and the lone undergraduate student on the roster, which featured eight professionals and four recent graduates. Being around such an esteemed group allowed Jeffery to, as she wrote on her blog (valjeffery2.wordpress.com), learn "so much about myself, volleyball as a whole, and just how to bring the best out of people when playing the sport I love."
"I've learned how to take pressure," she said. "I know with being a captain, an upperclassman and a setter that underclassmen will look up to me to make the plays and keep everyone together. It definitely helped me develop more of a leadership role."
Jeffery said not being the full-time starter and youngest player in China has helped her become more attentive in making sure newcomers and non-starters aren't intimidated and are included to create one cohesive group.
"It's helped me be a lot more empathetic, because I know the feeling of being surrounded by really great athletes and thinking that you maybe don't fit in that well or don't know what to say or if you should be taking a certain ball in practice. It's helped me be a lot calmer in frustrating situations. They're new, and they're not going to know our style of play right away. It'll take time and patience."
Jeffery, who describes herself as a visual learner, said she picked up on several volleyball skills she can improve on by watching her American teammates.
"There are several teams in the Horizon League with hard hitters, and I understand more how to play defense against them," she said. "I also think I got better lining up with my block. Some of the hitters in China were really tricky, and we have several hitters with tricky arm swings in our conference."
YSU head coach Mark Hardaway said the biggest change he's seen in Jeffery's play has been with her serve.
"I think she's been more aggressive with her serve," he said. "I think from a volleyball standpoint, she's been more aggressive in how she approaches the game. I think she went over and saw how important that was to keep other people out of their offense. She's trying to score points with her serve now."
"From a leadership standpoint, I think she's a little more vocal. I think she's even a little more focused than she was last year, which is great because she was pretty focused already," he added.
When they weren't on the court, Jeffery and her teammates had time to tour the country and immerse themselves in Chinese culture. They visited the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Silk Market among other attractions. She said her favorite stop was the Great Wall.
"I was with a couple of the girls from the Collegiate National Team, and we were riding up the trolley up the mountain to get to the top looking around at the scenery, and it was breathtaking," she said.
Her time in China also opened her eyes to the possibility of playing volleyball professionally. Jeffery is a nursing major at Youngstown State, and she wants to attend graduate school when her time as a Penguin concludes. "I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it," she said. "We'll see how the timeline would play out."
Jeffery and the Penguins begin the 2015 season on Aug. 28 against Bradley at the Toledo Rocket Invitational.