Byrnes finding more and more reasons to smile this season

by Kent Erdahl

It’s not hard to spot Jessica Byrnes on the volleyball court.

If Minnesota’s junior middle blocker is on the floor, she’s the one jumping after every point and smiling as if she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

“I’ve always been like that,” Byrnes said. “I smile a lot, and (coach Mike Hebert) used to give me a hard time that I jumped higher when I was celebrating than I did when I was actually getting a kill.”

If this is true, Byrnes’ legs must be tired. This season, she is celebrating one-third of the time she attempts a kill – the Gophers’ best hitting percentage.

Not bad for someone who doesn’t make her own coach’s list of physically gifted players.

“If you just measure sheer physical ability, Jess Byrnes, to me, is probably not in the top third in athleticism among Big Ten middles,” Hebert said. “But she’s started on the most successful Big Ten team over the past 2 1/2 years. That’s a testament to how important the chemistry aspect of someone’s game is.”

Hebert said he categorizes players into “givers” and “takers” depending on what they’re doing for the team, and he puts Byrnes on his list of “givers.”

“She lights up the court every time she heads out there,” Hebert said. “Do I think that matters? Absolutely.”

Giving from the get-go

As a true freshman in 2002, Byrnes expected to ease into the Minnesota program by practicing alongside two experienced middle blockers in Maggie Freiborg and Bethany Brafford.

But Byrnes’ gradual transition quickly turned into an abrupt shove.

“All of a sudden, in the first game of our first match, (Freiborg) goes down with a torn (anterior cruciate ligament),” Hebert said. “Jess runs onto the floor with her smile, and becomes a starter and we win the Big Ten Championship.”

Byrnes said the season wasn’t quite that simple, but she easily made an impression on her team. She finished third in kills, blocks and assists.

Trying too hard

Last season, Byrnes said she put too much pressure on herself to be an example for freshman middle blocker Meredith Nelson. Byrnes’ hitting percentage dropped to .247.

“The first half of the season, there were probably not as many smiles as there could have been,” Byrnes said. “Halfway through the season, the coaches sat me down and told me, ‘We know you can do this. We saw you do it last year.’ “

After a season of trying to do too much, Nelson said, Byrnes finally showed leadership when Minnesota faced Northern Iowa in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Byrnes recorded a .652 hitting percentage and notched 17 kills – both career highs.

“Jess had the game of her life,” Nelson said. “Afterwards, she was so thrilled to finally do what she wanted to do. She was so overcome with emotion that we just hugged and cried on the court.”

Smiling again

Nelson said that since the game against Northern Iowa, Byrnes hasn’t looked back.

During the offseason, Byrnes and Nelson worked extra hours to improve at middle blocker, and it seems to have paid off. The duo has the two highest hitting percentages on the team.

Even though Hebert knows how hard Byrnes worked to improve, he said, he is still amazed to see how she exceeds his expectations.

“She didn’t have a great offensive year (as a sophomore), but there she was starting on a team that goes to the Final Four,” Hebert said. “And now, she’s out here doing it again.”