The early part of Jessica Sanderson’s volleyball career was one of transition. For one thing, she picked up the sport in sixth grade after watching her sister play and dropped soccer, something she’d been playing since she was 2-years old.
Once she walked through the doors at Mount St. Dominic and started to play on the court, someone that would eventually end up re-writing the record books in the kills department began in a completely different role.
As a ‘really small’ 13-year old freshman, as she puts it, Sanderson took up the role of libero on the Mount St. Dominic team.
“Everyone was so much taller than me and so much stronger than me so I came in and knew how to pass so that’s what I did,” Sanderson said. “Summer going into sophomore year I grew three inches so they told me I was going to hit. It freaked me out because I was going to go back to the high school season against seniors and 18-year-olds that were huge. I picked it up because it’s more of a leading role to be a hitter.”
She still fared well in her first season on the varsity squad, recording 63 kills, 24 aces and 36 digs, but after that summer leading up to her sophomore year, Sanderson took off.
“We knew she was a great volleyball player coming in,” said Mount St. Dominic coach Marybeth Olsinski. “We knew that she was a true volleyball player and was going to do great things for the program. When she came back sophomore year her hit was unstoppable.”
Playing club that same summer helped Sanderson build a tremendous amount of confidence and it showed on the court. She bumped her kills total up to 209 that season, reaching double-digit kills six times with a season-high of 22. All that came with a change in position.
“I started as an outside my sophomore year,” Sanderson said. “It was a slow year but my club season after that was big. I played for a new club, I went traveling a lot more. I knew I had improved (going into junior year), but we were able to come together as a team last year and win a lot of games, which means more stats.”
The 2017 campaign is when Sanderson really put herself in the spotlight. She recorded an astounding 490 kills last fall, more than doubling her previous high in a season. She failed to reach double-digit kills in just five of her team’s 28 matches and averaged 17.5 kills per match.
“There’s definitely a natural ability to Jess, but at the same point she’s hands-down the hardest worker I’ve seen in years,” Olsinski said. “She would go from our practice to practice with a personal trainer and she would be playing club in the offseason. Any time she can play, she just wants to play and that I think shows how dedicated she is to the sport and to making herself the best she can.”
That work ethic set the table for what is now a historic senior season.
Through 20 matches, Sanderson has 351 kills, but none were more important than one of the 14 she recorded against West Windsor-Plainsboro South on Oct. 1. That night, in a 25-14, 27-25 win, Sanderson became the first player in program history to reach 1,000 kills.
“It didn’t feel real until they were actually counting down,” Sanderson said. “The whole team came together and made a bunch of posters and it was so nice. It was four years of working hard to get that one point.”
“She just has a great approach and knows what needs to be done,” Olsinski said. “She knows when to be smart. She knows when she has that perfect set and she’s going to slam it or when she has to tip it over. She’s an asset wherever she is on the court and I think this year more than ever the team looks to her a lot when we need that point to get back.”
For every great hitter, though, there has to be a setter to get them the ball.
Senior Alexandra Rivera has been the main setter for the past two seasons and has over 450 assists in that span.
“Alexandra’s in my grade so we’ve been working together for three years,” Sanderson said. “For her first two years she was a libero and we graduated two setters in one year going into my junior year so they told her she was setting. She has the best hands in the program and I feel like she adjusts well and puts the ball wherever I want it.”
Junior Breanna Munoz has also done a great job getting Sanderson the ball with 109 assists of her own.
At 17-5 to this point in the season, Sanderson and her Mount St. Dominic team have high aspirations in the tournaments that are on the horizon.
“I feel like we’re going to keep pushing through because we have a strong team,” she said. “I honestly want to finish this season strong. As a team, we’re just trying to minimize our mistakes and keep pushing forward to make new accomplishments as a team.”