SPRING HILL — A week ago, Bishop McLaughlin junior Jessica Johnson sat inside the gym at Wiregrass Ranch, watching with more than a passing interest as the Bulls hosted Land O’Lakes in a district match.
Two years ago, Johnson was a freshman starter for the Wiregrass Ranch volleyball team.
Last season, after transferring in the second semester of her freshman year, she starred for the Gators, leading the team in kills (261) and ranking second in aces (64).
It was an awkward experience for the 16-year-old.
During the offseason, Johnson transferred for the third time in three years, this time to Bishop McLaughlin, a budding program under second-year coach Doug Chinchar.
The Hurricanes, in a district with powers Tampa Prep and Indian Rocks Christian, have never advanced to the playoffs.
Johnson’s move was a curious one. Why switch from a team loaded with talent to one buried in obscurity? According to Johnson, it was mostly a matter of academics.
“It was a good opportunity to go to a private school,” Johnson said. “Volleyball-wise, Land O’Lakes was really good. If it was just about volleyball, I wouldn’t have left.”
As Johnson observed her former Gator teammates defeat her less familiar Bulls teammates to improve to 9-0, one wonders: any regret about this latest transfer?
“I’ve been to three or four Land O’Lakes games, and I still miss a lot of the girls over there,” Johnson said. “Land O’Lakes gets a lot of attention. I had never even heard of Bishop McLaughlin until a few years ago. I know I’m going to be kind of hidden here, but I really enjoy it.
“I don’t have any regrets. The people are great. I love the academics here. I love the team here.”
And Bishop McLaughlin loves its newfound star outside hitter.
“Her teammates are thrilled with her,” Chinchar said. “Everybody in the school thinks she’s a great kid.”
Johnson is having a phenomenal, albeit somewhat anonymous year for the Hurricanes. She leads the North Suncoast in kills and aces. Chinchar, who played volleyball at Ohio State and has coached at Brescia University in Kentucky, Wichita State and most recently at Academy of the Holy Names, says Johnson is the best server he has seen at the high school level.
“There are not many people that can serve with her; I haven’t found one yet,” he said. “Another unique strength she has that not many have is her ability to attack out of the back row. She can score anytime from there when we need it.”
Johnson has lofty goals. She wants to play college volleyball at a Division I program and even dreams of playing in the Olympics.
She can get there, according to Chinchar, with a little help.
“We’re working on Jessica being able to control a game more by herself,” he said. “She likes to get other people involved, which is not a bad thing, but there’s some times when she’s got to say, ‘everybody get out of the way and let me take over the game.’ She’s learning how to do that, and once she does, look out.”
Any chance we’ll see Johnson in another uniform come the start of her senior year?
Transferring three times isn’t really that easy,” she said. “I’m hoping to stay at Bishop for my senior year.”