Saturday, November 18, 2017
Sports

East Lake grad making an impact in sand volleyball at Tulane

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During an illustrious prep volleyball career, outside hitter Jackie Wegner led East Lake High School to consecutive state volleyball championships (2010-11), the school's first titles in the sport.

As a senior, Wegner was named to the Tampa Bay Times' all-Pinellas County volleyball first team.

Wegner was one of 10 girls from around the country selected to travel to Russia and participate in the USA/Russia Presidents Bilateral Athlete Exchange.

After accumulating a 4.0 unweighted grade-point average, Wegner graduated as East Lake's valedictorian and was honored as the Times' student-athlete of the year.

But all of those accolades mattered little in the world of indoor collegiate volleyball.

The stat college coaches focused on was the one affixed to the height category on Wegner's profile: 5-foot-9.

In a world dominated by hard-swinging behemoths where any measurement less than 6 feet is considered too short for an outside hitter, Wegner was told she would have to change her position to libero, a defensive specialist position, to make a Division 1 roster.

"Indoor is more a power game, so there comes a point when you just have to be tall," Wegner said.

Enter sand volleyball.

Building off of the rise in popularity of beach volleyball, thanks in large part to the consecutive Olympic gold medals won by the charismatic duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), the NCAA approved the game as an emerging sport for women in 2009, naming it sand volleyball to encourage landlocked schools to participate.

Wegner, a Clearwater native, began beach volleyball at 12 years old during summers as a way to continue playing the sport when there weren't any indoor competitions. Wegner and former East Lake teammate Brianna McComeskey started competing on weekends for fun, and eventually Wegner enjoyed the outdoor game more than the indoor one, traveling to California each summer to compete in the Beach High Performance Program.

"I grew more and more invested in beach volleyball," Wegner said. "In high school I was playing a lot. By my senior year, I was playing way more beach than I was indoor."

Tulane University was one of 15 Division 1 schools to sponsor sand volleyball during the inaugural season of competition (2011-12). Wegner became part of the first sand-only recruiting class in the program's history when she signed with the Green Wave in November (2011) of her senior year.

"Sand volleyball is more of a finesse game, and you have to be able to complete all of the skills successfully," said Wegner, who is working toward an accounting degree at Tulane. "It was a better game for me because I'm not a big player. I'm more focused on ball control. It was an easy transition for me to go from what was my strength in the indoor game to what is normal in the sand game."

Partnered with Tea Juric, Wegner, now a sophomore at Tulane, went 8-7 in dual-match play as Tulane's top tandem and earned a 10-5 record in pairs action during the recently completed regular season. The duo qualified for the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships in Gulf Shores, Ala., over the weekend (May 2-4). Wegner and Juric were the first Tulane team to be invited to the postseason since the sand volleyball program started three years ago.

Over the weekend, Wegner and Juric went 1-3 at the national championships, earning a 1-1 mark during the first day of action before losing twice on Saturday and getting bounced from the competition.

"As a parent, it was an absolute thrill to watch her play the championships," said Jackie's father, Bill. "You never imagine that your daughter would be playing at that level when she started playing on the beach at Clearwater at 12 years old. To see eight years later, she's one of the top 20 pairs in the country, it's really unbelievable."

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