Jessica Wood feature
After graduation, former student-athletes are rarely able to continue their lives in the sport they have grown up with and competed in to earn a degree. It is very unusual for a graduate to find a head coaching position less than five years after their final competition as a student. However, if any Racer could achieve that, it would be Jessica Wood.
Wood played volleyball at Murray State from 1998 to 2001. After graduating from high school at age 17, Wood was MSU head coach David Schwepker's first recruit after her success with the club team Match Point. She hit the ground running, earning All-Ohio Valley Conference Newcomer Team honors, being named OVC Freshman of the Week twice. As a sophomore, she was named to the All-OVC Second Team and All-OVC Tournament Team, and in her junior year, she earned All-OVC Second Team honors again.
She finished her career at Murray State with 380 games played in 108 matches, slamming 1,044 kills for a 2.75 kills-per-game pace and a .200 attack percentage. She had 1,132 career digs (2.98 per game) and 121 career aces (0.32 per game).
"Every once in a while, as a coach, you come across a kid who is very mature from the very beginning," Schwepker said. "These are players who always work hard, cause no problems, do great in school Ã¢ do everything right. That was Jess. She is just an amazing person, one that you admire so much. She was our team captain, and was just a great person. It doesn't surprise me that she is doing this well at Colorado Springs.
"She knows a lot about the game, and one thing that she does is makes sure that she has good people around her, and these people will end up doing great things for her, also. What makes her a good coach is: she's very, very smart and very mature. She knows how to deal with people. I am fairly sure she isn't berating players or abusing players. She treats people with a lot of respect. Good coaches do that, and they get that respect in return."
She completed her degree at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and became that school's assistant coach in 2002. After the Mountain Lions went 4-24 in 2002 and 5-25 in 2003, then-head coach Tara Miller resigned, leaving first-year athletics director Stephen Kirkham with his first coaching change at UCCS.
"I hired Jessica at the behest of our staff," Kirkham said. "In fact, our sports information director said, 'If you don't hire Jessica Wood, you're a moron, and we're morons for not firing you!'
"It took a little convincing to get her to take the job, actually. We told her of our vision and plan for the volleyball program and where we see the program going in the future, and that we needed her to be a part of that."
"It kind of shocked me," Wood said. "I wasn't thinking about going into coaching; I was studying to be a teacher. But, I got really good experience in coaching, having coached club teams as well, and I found I really liked it. It's the same as teaching, just more hands-on.
"I didn't want the job at first. If the program had strong support, we could build something, but we didn't have great support, so we'd be good for a couple of years, and then go back down. Why take on a program when you couldn't actually build on it? Then, I talked with Mr. Kirkham, and he told me his vision for the program, and that's what really attracted me to it."
Wood accepted the job at age 23 on July 7, 2004, and immediately turned the team around, moving from 5-25 in 2003 with a 3-13 mark in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference's Western Division to 15-14, 9-10 RMAC West with the team's first post-season berth since 2001.
"We started with the same players we had from the year before," Wood said, "but we were running things differently, utilizing strengths and trying to fly under the radar, but that doesn't last long! We changed our focus from winning and losing to achieving goals and making progress and a team and as individuals, and eventually, the wins took care of themselves. They saw their successes and realized that they belonged at that level."
In 2005, the team continued to improve, going 16-13, 12-7 in the RMAC West. The Mountain Lions saw more of the same this season after being moved to the Eastern Division, finishing at 14-12, 11-7 RMAC East.
"Each year, Jessica has upgraded the team's schedule considerably," Kirkham said. "Last year, they were given regional consideration (as a top 10 team), and this year, they are among the region's top 10. In her first two tournaments this year, they played eight nationally-ranked teams and won three of those. Next season, she has six seniors coming back, so they should have an excellent season."
We brought in a couple of good transfers who had seen success, and success breeds success," Wood said, "and that leads to getting better players and so on."
"Jessica took over a program that was headed in the wrong direction," said UCCS sports information director Doug Fitzgerald. "She instilled focus, purpose and integrity. UCCS qualified for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference playoffs only one time prior to Jessica becoming the coach. Since her arrival, the Mountain Lions have been to the playoffs three consecutive seasons."
The RMAC Eastern Division is the home of perennial champion Nebraska-Kearney, which finished second nationally in 2005 and third in 2004. This year, the Lopers had a "down" season, finishing 28-8 overall, winning the division at 16-3.
"She's done a heck of a job out there at Colorado Springs," said UNK head coach Rick Squiers. "She's upgraded their recruiting and done a great job of coaching on the floor. She has turned them into a legitimate contender in the conference, qualifying for the conference tournament.
"I've been here for eight years, and when I started, they were struggling to get anything going up there. She has definitely established them as a consistent contender. They will continue to be a factor in our conference for years to come as long as she is part of that program. She loves the sport, she loves her kids. She has trained them well, and she recruits well. She should be proud of herself. She is extremely professional and represents our sport extremely well."
"Jessica is a magnificent representative for Colorado Springs," Kirkham said. "There are certain things that we ask our coaches to do on campus and in the community, and she is one of the best representatives we have. It helps that she's a local person (from nearby Calhan, Colo.). She has lived up to our expectations and more."
"I get involved with the local club teams," Wood said, "and that's fun. I get to know people. We have special nights to get people involved in coming to the school, like Girl Scout nights and things like that. It's fun; it provides a good balance to get out and do that kind of thing."
"The part about coaching that I've learned is that I get to watch these players grow up, more at this level than at any other. These are 18- to 21-year-olds. I've enjoyed watching them grow up and step into leadership roles, but they don't just 'step into' them. It takes guidance, and that must be learned. That is the biggest challenge for me as a coach, but it's also the most rewarding.
"It's not all about the sport; it's more about the people and what they're learning," she said. "Sport teaches us about life. It puts you in every circumstance you can imagine and teaches how to deal with it: when things are bad or going great, how you deal with a boss who demands more of you, and so on. It's really neat to see them grow and develop."
As a four-year starter at Murray State, Jessica Wood was an outstanding student and a very talented player, one who has, herself, grown and developed into a leader who has found success. She continues to teach the lessons of life through sport so that her charges will, themselves, become strong players and stronger people.
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