Passionate play endears Byrnes to new teammates

Ben Goessling

She started receiving attention from colleges at age 15, yet is still amazed to be playing Division I volleyball.

She flirted with the idea of going to college thousands of miles away, yet stayed close to home in part because, she says, “I’d miss my dog.”

She is so excitable that coaches say she jumps higher in celebration than in competition, yet had the fortitude to single-handedly coordinate a summer volleyball camp in her hometown.

She giggles sheepishly about her success, yet stepped in for an injured teammate no more than five minutes into her college career and led her team to its biggest upset in six years.

Welcome to the complex world of Jessica Byrnes, Gophers freshman volleyball player and the most surprising story on one of the nation’s most surprising teams.

“You don’t find kids like her too often,” Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert said. “She is uniquely motivated to succeed in life.”

Byrnes, whose bubbly energy on the court has earned her the nickname “Trigger,” also possesses a maturity which belies her 18 years.

When middle blocker Maggie Freiborg went down with a season-ending ACL injury in Minnesota’s first match of the State Farm Volleyball Classic on Aug. 23, Byrnes calmly stepped in, contributing seven kills and six digs in Minnesota’s 3-0 victory over then-No. 8 Pepperdine.

The Waves were the highest ranked team the Gophers had defeated since 1996.

“It was a do-or-die situation,” Byrnes said casually. “Nerves took over a little bit, but I’ve grown comfortable on the court to the point nothing fazes me.”

Byrnes, who leads the team in hitting percentage and is ranked third in kills, has drawn comparisons from the coaching staff to two-time All-American Stephanie Hagen, Minnesota’s middle blocker from 1998-2001.

“I know I have the potential to be like her,” Byrnes said. “That’s something I’m striving for.”

While the 6-foot-2 Byrnes lacks Hagen’s imposing physical presence, Hebert and his staff see a similarity to Hagen in Byrnes’ savvy and unwavering drive.

The Minnetonka, Minn., native displayed those same qualities off the court last summer.

After graduating from high school last spring, Byrnes decided to put on a youth camp with the rest of her high school team.

Problem was, her coaches weren’t around to help.

Undeterred, Byrnes lined up the camp by herself, taking on its marketing and administrative tasks as well as providing instruction for children.

“I had no idea what a big step it was,” said Byrnes, flashing a wide-eyed smile. “But we put all the money back into the high school program, so it was definitely worth it.”

Athena Mallakis, Byrnes’ roommate and a redshirt on Minnesota’s volleyball team this year, said she wasn’t surprised Byrnes would take on such a big project as long as it involved volleyball.

“She’s always thinking about it,” Mallakis said. “Our room has volleyball stuff all over, and we’re always playing in the house.”

And while she probably hasn’t won many fans among her neighbors, Byrnes’s electric play has endeared her to the Gopher faithful.

“The joke usually is, ‘If Jess isn’t smiling, something has to be wrong,'” Byrnes said. “I just love playing volleyball, and hopefully I can lead by example.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]