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Little Bear, huge hitter

Her head reaches just above the bottom of a women's-height volleyball net.

And from the moment she steps onto the court for the Central Bears, Jessica Jeffery can feel stares from the opposing team.

"If you look at Jess, you don't think she's a big, aggressive person," said teammate Misty Laushot. "People look at her and go, "That skinny little girl? She can't get over the net _ back row specialist.'

"

The stares turn into gaping mouths and the snickering begins when the 5-foot-4, 120-pound senior lines up at outside hitter, a position usually reserved for a team's strongest _ and tallest _ hitter.

With Jeffery undersized and seemingly overmatched, the games usually begin with the other team not even throwing a block on the four-year starter. But there's a reason she's on that front line. And it doesn't take long to realize why.

"If people go in there saying what's this little girl doing in the front court, after a set or two when one of her hits goes ringing off someone's head, I'm sure they understand why she's in there," said Central coach Jim Jensen.

Despite her size, Jeffery has practiced, lifted weights and leaped her way into being one of Central's most productive, yet unassuming, hitters.

When it seemed as if she might be too small to be a hitter, Jeffery spent hours at the gym and began working on her leg strength. She figured if she could not match her competition's height, she would out-jump them.

After transforming herself into 120 pounds of muscle, Jeffery's efforts have paid off. Her vertical leap _ though not measured by Jensen or Jeffery _ launches her to where she can see over the 7-foot, 4[-inch net. And just seconds later, to where she can pound a spike through a defense.

"They look at me 'cause I'm skinny and they assume I'm frail then I show them my guns," she jokes as she bends her left arm and flexes her biceps. "I like hitting just to show them up."

Without much thought, Jeffery will admit she prefers playing the back row where she can dig would-be kills. Her quickness and agility make her an ideal back-row player.

But it is others' disbelief in her hitting ability that drives her to throw down the big hit.

Jeffery picked up volleyball in the sixth grade when she and a friend watched others play beach volleyball at Buccaneer Bay. Needless to say, her father, Jeff, was setting up a makeshift volleyball court in their large backyard a few days later.

Two wooden 2x4s and a department-store badminton net made up her own grass court. There she taught herself the game, from passing to setting to hitting. And when she needed a partner to practice, there was always her mom, Carol _ well, almost.

"I made my mom play with me _ until she twisted her knee," she said.

With her self-taught skills, Jeffery tried out for a club volleyball team in the 10th grade. When she looked up at the 6-foot players also trying out for her spot, she realized she could no longer be a middle hitter, her natural position since elementary school.

But her athleticism kept her in the front row and eventually earned her a permanent position as an all-around player and specifically an outside hitter.

Jensen, a first-year coach at Central, and "vertically challenged" as he says at about 5-8, could not overlook Jeffery's talent when he took over the Bears.

"She's got a lot of spirit and she's strong," Jensen said. "Her strongest character is that she's very determined. She may be small, but she's not going to let a character like that set her back."

Jeffery's diminutive stature and thin build has always been more a matter of concern for opponents and critics than it has been for her. Even when she's running for Central's track team, she hears the uncalled-for ridicule.

But just as opposing blockers end up swallowing their taunts, so do the opposing racers end up in her dust, since Jeffery is the second-fastest runner in the 100-meter dash in Hernando County.

It's just another example of the lesson she has for her taller, heavier peers, a credo she has learned to live by:

"They judge a book by its cover. Those are the people I like to prove wrong."

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