Dec. 2, 2013
FAYETTEVILLE, NC - As Fayetteville State was finishing up its Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament championship volleyball match on campus against Winston-Salem State on Nov. 23, a familiar sight was aiding the Lady Broncos' cause.
Play after play and point after point, Joylene Thompson leapt and swung or leapt and blocked, whatever the situation called for. When all was finished, the senior middle hitter had a match-high 18 kills, assisted on two blocks and had three service aces.
Thompson appeared natural in her domination, like she had been playing the game for her entire life. The amazing part of this though is that it is not true. Thompson didn't take up the sport in her native Jamaica until she was 13 years old.
But her game has progressed quickly in the period since.
"I started playing volleyball at 13," Thompson said. "My high school coach saw me and he invited me to come and learn the sport. I went because I had nothing else to do. I began playing in grade seven and I started playing for my club team at 14. From there, I gradually learned the skill. I became proficient because my coaches hammered the game into me."
Her skills progressed rapidly enough to earn her a spot on the Cisco Junior College team in Cisco, Texas. There, time at all three hitting positions improved her game and got her noticed by FSU assistant Keisha Edwards, like Thompson a Jamaican who excelled at the Texas juco.
Fellow Jamaican and FSU head coach Reeshemah Johnson offered her a spot with the Lady Broncos and was immediately excited about her potential.
"We call her `Grasshopper' because of how high she jumps," Johnson said. "She was
already a pretty accomplished player when she came here. I think she just kind of elevated her game once she had to lead the team. She just elevated the team."
Thompson spent her junior season shifting around at all three hitting positions. With Ifeyinwa Nwokolo (351 kills in 2012) and Joi Emanuel (253) already established as offensive threats, Thompson couldn't just walk in and be the middle hitter. She had to be versatile.
Her versatility worked out to the tune of 224 kills, third-highest total on the team.
"I had her playing just about everything," Johnson said. "She played middle, right side, outside, and it was a big adjustment for her because the play is different and the speed is different at each position. She had to adjust."
This year, Thompson wasn't forced to move around as much. She's the team's established middle hitter. The move has been a successful one. She's recorded a team-high 241 kills this year en route to finishing First-Team All-CIAA, winning the CIAA Tournament's Most Valuable Player award and leading her Lady Broncos into the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, where they'll play Wheeling Jesuit on Thursday.
The position suits Thompson, and Thompson suits the position.
"I think hitting from the middle is so much more exhilarating," Thompson said. "You go so much faster and because you go faster, I'm able to hit harder and jump higher. It's just a whole adrenaline rush."
That Thompson is able to partake in the adrenaline rush at all is a symbol of her ability to keep up in the classroom while living the hectic schedule of an NCAA student-athlete and nursing student. She was accepted into the nursing program this year, which has meant long hours and clinicals, lots of homework and some late arrivals to practice.
Her performance on the court hasn't suffered, but that doesn't mean the dual roles don't come with their share of stress.
"It is rough," she said. "I can't even describe it. Sometimes I want to cry. No, sometimes I do cry. Sometimes I don't know how to adjust my time. I can't manipulate my time for volleyball because the coaches set the schedule. It's the same for nursing. I can't adjust the time to suit me so I have to shuffle things around.
"I work in study hall at six o'clock. After practice I go to study hall. Sometimes I don't eat. I just go to work. After work I do more assignments, not to get ahead because it's really hard to get ahead. I try to maintain the amount of work that I have to do."
After her time at FSU is complete, Thompson says she'll get her Master's degree in anesthesiology. She said she'd like to stay in America after that is complete, due to an economy here that is stronger than the one back home.
That reminds Thompson of another challenge, one she's still adapting to. Thompson misses home, family and her culture. She prefers music from her native country.
And the local cuisine?
"I cannot adjust to the cafeteria food for anything I like fried chicken Wednesdays and Sundays, but that's it. I don't think anything beats my Jamaican food. I love chicken soup, curry chicken."
But she's adjusting to that, just like she's adjusting to life as a nursing student and life as a permanent middle hitter. And if Thompson has her way, she'll be adjusting to winning NCAA Tournament matches, something FSU has yet to do despite winning four CIAA Tournaments.
Wheeling Jesuit is the team that ousted the Lady Broncos last year, and they're the team presently standing in the way of Thompson's hopes to extend her career.
"It was just an adjustment for all of us (last year)," Thompson said. "For this year, I believe the team is working really hard to ensure that our competitive edge is maintained. I believe we can go really far."