Benefield: Volleyball player Jessica Crawford in 2nd stint as Santa Rosa Junior College athlete
Jessica Crawford's first love is swimming, but for years now she has felt like she had some unfinished business with volleyball.
A state champion swimmer during her first stint at Santa Rosa Junior College in 2011-12 and a two-year starter on the water polo team, Crawford said she had a connection with and a love of volleyball that didn't die when she stopped playing after her junior year of high school.
She tried to fill the need through once-a-week pickup games in Rohnert Park. It helped, but not entirely. It wasn't enough. It wasn't a team.
So she reached out by email to Bear Cubs volleyball coach Ally Deal, telling Deal that she swam at the JC for coach Jill McCormick but had a volleyball background: Could she try out?
Deal asked McCormick for her take on Crawford.
McCormick didn't hesitate.
“I said, ‘Definitely pursue it. She's legit,'” McCormick recalled. “I was like, ‘She will help you, she will have a positive impact on your overall team dynamic.'”
“I knew Jess was the type of athlete you look for at this level,” she said. “This is someone who knows how to work hard, knows what accountability is.”
And she knows how to win.
After graduating from Heritage High in Brentwood, Crawford came north to swim for the Bear Cubs. After a strong freshman year, she anchored the state champion 200-yard medley relay team as a sophomore and finished second in state in the 50-yard butterfly and second in the 100-yard freestyle. She also took eighth in the 100-yard butterfly.
She was also a two-year starter on the water polo team, earned co-MVP honors and made the Big 8 All-Tournament team despite having just one year of that sport under her belt in high school and despite professing that she didn't truly know how to play it.
But Crawford had once loved volleyball almost as much as her water sports. A rough go on her high school team went a long way toward squashing her love of the game, but it didn't put the light out completely.
After wrapping up her swimming career with the Bear Cubs, Crawford tried to sate her competitive tendencies with those open gym sessions. It didn't work. Hence, the email to Deal.
“I just felt like it's something I needed to do,” Crawford said of giving college volleyball a shot.
But aside from her athletic resume, Deal had real questions for Crawford, who is about a month shy of her 27th birthday. How would this work with her fulltime business schedule in Rohnert Park? How would she manage her 13 academic units? Would she be all in?
“She's a full-blown adult at this point. She has a career and life obligations and I wanted to know what that piece would look like with the program,” Deal said.
Buoyed by McCormick's endorsement, Deal invited Crawford to work out with her team. She has never regretted it.
“She has been with us ever since,” Deal said. “She comes with a wealth of knowledge. She's an athlete first and foremost. She was on a lot of successful programs and she knows what SRJC culture is like and what winning is like.”
If anything, that has been the bumpiest part of the journey for Crawford. A top-shelf athlete with a sterling resume, Crawford is suddenly not a star. The Bear Cubs are 8-4 heading into Wednesday's road game against Diablo Valley College.
The competitive drive that pushed Crawford into pursuing this dream is the same thing that stabs at her a little bit now that her role looks different than it has on other teams.
Sure, she's competitive, but at 26, she's also got hard-won perspective.
“Right now I think to myself, ‘Do you believe you are better than anyone on the court right now?'” she said. “No. These girls are really good and they play all the time. I have to be honest with myself. Of course I would much rather be on the court instead of on the bench cheering. But at this point my role has been to keep that vibe for the girls on the bench.”
But make no mistake, Deal has used her.
“She has come up pretty big for us in games where there have been crazy circumstances,” she said. “She's been thrown into high-stress situations.”
The concussion she suffered on the eve of the season didn't help. Neither did the sprained ankle she sustained the Monday she was cleared to play after the concussion.
So competitive is Crawford that she barely likes talking about those setbacks.
“I didn't want to be that old grandma, that old lady,” she said. “That first week was really terrible for me, mentally. I just felt terrible. I felt like, ‘Man, this is not how I wanted to start off.'”
Team captain Violet Johnson described Crawford as a grinder. At practice Monday, Crawford's team lost two drills in a row, meaning her side had to run lines. Crawford crossed in first both times.