Jessica Howard had her doubts.
Sure, she planned to play volleyball in college. She had some offers from a handful of teams. But as a senior at Madison County High School outside of Athens, Ga., Howard wasn't sure she would make it at the next level.
Then, in her first year at Augusta State, Howard led the Lady Jaguars in kills and finished second in hitting percentage. She was named Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year.
"I didn't think I'd be any good at volleyball," she said. "Then I won Freshman of the Year and thought, 'That was exciting.' "
For someone who didn't think she would amount to much, Howard has done quite well for herself. The past two seasons, she earned all-conference honors and was named player of the week four times. In her career, she has accumulated more than 1,300 kills.
The 6-foot-1 senior middle hitter entered this season as a preseason all-conference member and hasn't disappointed. In the season-opening Tusculum Fall Classic, Howard hit .347 with 63 kills in four Augusta State wins. She later was named conference player of the week.
"We're lucky to have her on the Division II level," first-year Augusta State coach Sharon Bonaventure said. "I'm sad I only have her one season. She's very coachable. And she's learned so much."
Howard never intended for volleyball to become so much of her life. She started playing basketball in fifth grade. When she entered high school, her coach requested she add a second sport.
So Howard took up volleyball, a seemingly natural fit for someone with her height.
"I didn't like it," she said. "I wasn't very good. When I first started, I was absolutely horrible."
Howard kept working. After her freshman year, she attended a camp where she learned fundamental skills. She played basketball for one more season before giving it up to concentrate on volleyball -- a move she hasn't regretted.
She has become the leader in the middle of the court, and a loud one at that. After every tournament, the team co-captain loses her voice.
Howard's role is an integral one. She is the first line of defense at the net.
"If I mess up one of my blocks, the back row gets killed," she said.
Howard said she much prefers to be the one attacking. With one swing, she can rocket a shot across the net and end a point. But when a wall of defenders leaps in front of her, she understands she can't always spike the ball.
"You have to be smart," she said. "You can't always swing away at every ball."
A kinesiology and health science major, Howard said she's excited about this season. Her first three seasons, the Lady Jaguars won just six Peach Belt matches and averaged almost 15 wins a season. This season, Augusta State is 5-2.
"I feel like we have the potential to go really far this year," Howard said. "I want to see us go to regionals."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.