What started as a before they were stars type piece and one highlighting the impact three hometown heroes of the Final Four are having on their high school and club teams as collegiate standouts quickly changed when we realized that some people are just born with it, have always been stars and began making an impact before they ever left home.
When you are 6-foot 5 as a freshman volleyball player or you’re playing with eighth graders at a summer camp when you are in fourth grade because you are “just too good to put with kids your own age” or drawing the attention of college coaches who want to sign you in eighth grade, that is kind of freakish or some would say you are “special.”
When we checked in with the high school and club coaches of Audriana Fitzmorris, Jenna Gray and Jazz Sweet, all Kansas City area natives, we found not only great memories, plenty of emotions, and proud moments from before they were college stars. We also found that their impact on those programs was both immediate when they were part of those groups and continues as their stars rise to new levels. We also found that their on the court standout moments were matched by touching off-court acts and selfless love for team, coach and family.
In this story, we will feature Nebraska star Jazz Sweet. We focused on Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray in a separate look, because there was just too much to cram all into one story. These there are stars after all.
A native of Tecumseh, Kansas, a Shawnee Heights High School alumna, and Topeka Impact club player, Sweet was the No. 12 overall propect nationally by PrepVolleyball and an Under Armour first team All-American in 2016.
The lefty led Shawnee Heights to the state championship in 2016, while nabbing her third first team all-state honor and being tabbed Topeka Capital Journal city Player of the Year for the third time. With Impact, she helped her 17-1’s team to third place at Junior Nationals.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Sweet first got recognized as an eighth grader, Topeka Impact club director Mark Evans, who coached Sweet for four years, said at her signing day last year.
“We saw her come along as an eighth grader,” Evans shared. “When we saw her, we were like ‘Gosh, this kid could be something pretty special.’ She dominated the 17-and-under as a 14 year old. The kid has just gotten so good every year.”
That foreshadowing has proved true so far as her rookie season at Nebraska, Sweet has notched 2.24 kills per set, hit .276 and added 70 blocks while leading the Huskers to a 30-4 mark, a Big Ten co-championship and the Final Four berth.
FROM THE BEGINNING
“I first saw her when she was in sixth grade,” Evans said. “I did a little kids camp here in Topeka and she came over to it. She was super quiet kid and you would tell her something and would just kind of look down and walk away. She would hardly interact with you at all. That is where I first remember her. And then, she played for us when she was eighth grader and she played on a team of her own age.Kevin Hambly, who was the Illinois coach, had come down and worked a camp for us and I had told him a little about her. Then, we were out at Nationals in Dallas and said you need to come watch her again, she is getting so much better. He went over there and I remember getting a text from him, which I still might have all of these years later, that said, we will sign this kid right now, today, if she is willing to come to Illinois. We kind of laughed about it, but the next year, I was coaching 17s and I told her mom I thought she was good enough to play with us, even though she was 14. She was our go-to kid that year. I told her and the rest of the team that year that their lives were about to change and they were about to be bombarded with emails, because I knew that coaches were going to come out in droves. When they found out her age, it just like ‘oh my God.’ That is what happened. It started her freshman year right off the bat when we went to the Omaha MLK tournament and from there it just got crazy. Everyone was after that kid.”
And yet, her eventual high school coach Laura Curry remembers that freshman year that Sweet was bouncing back and force between JV and varsity.
“I wasn’t the varsity coach, but I just remember I saw so much potential, just raw talent, but her confidence wasn’t what it needed to be,” Curry said. “I walked over to her because we were scrimmaging the starting team and I said, ‘ I am going to set to you every time and I want you to crush the ball and show coach that you should be on that side. I was trying to build her up and I did. She would go up every time and crush the ball. Even as a freshman, when she didn’t have a whole lot of experience under her belt, you could just see the raw talent. When she came in her sophomore year, when I took over the program, her confidence had increased dramatically and she was the Player of the Year in our conference and she was all-state. As a freshman you could see the potential, you could see the talent, but we had to work on that confidence. She obviously improved on that, and with all of the experience, now look at her. She is just a stud. I am so proud of her and so excited she is at where she is.”
When it came time to pick a college, Evans says Sweet was between KU and Nebraska and she made extensive visits to both schools.
“She went to KU first and really liked it, and then she went and visited Nebraska. She said, ‘Mark, it is just a totally different level of volleyball there. The program is totally different. She said I want to win a championship and I think I can do it at Nebraska. So, I couldn’t be more happy for her, I am on cloud nine for her and can’t wait to watch her play again.”
But before Sweet could make that jump to a whole other level of volleyball, Evans had a plan for how to get her ready for the physicality of the Big Ten.
“John Cook told me, ‘Mark we really need her to come in as a freshman and start for us over there on the right side,'” Evans shared. “‘We really need this kid and we have a feeling that she can do it.’ One of the things we did to try to get her ready was that I brought in some buddies and raised the net up and she played on a guys’ net against guys. That was one of the things that really helped her as well. I had no doubts that she was going to start as a freshman there. The only question I had was whether she was going to be a six-rotation player or just a three-rotation player. You don’t know this yet, but Jazz is a really good defensive player and a good passer. I see her stepping into that role next year at Nebraska. I know I brag on her because she is one of my kids, but she is a special one.”
HUMBLE ON AND OFF THE COURT
As impressive as Sweet has been on the court, both of her former coaches are quick to point out there is so much more to the Topeka native than just talent.
“When people look at Jazz and what a phenomenal athlete she is on the volleyball court, but I want people to know is that she is not only an amazing volleyball player and athlete, but she is a great kid,” Curry said. “I have two daughters and my youngest is six. A memory I have is Jazz bending down and Emersyn sitting on her knees right next to her and hugging her and Jazz telling her ‘Emersyn, thiscan be you someday. You are going to be as good as me.’ She is just such an amazing person and great role model. She takes the time out to see the little ones and tell them they can aspire to be anything. From my perspective, my children want to be her. They couldn’t take their eyes off the TV screen. My six year old was just enamored that Jazz was on TV. We are still in correspondence quite a bit and she just has such a good heart. I want people to know she is an amazing young lady in all aspects of her life.”
And despite her talent, Curry recalls Jazz as “very soft spoken, but working her tail off all of the time.” Evans took it a step further.
“Jazz has always been one of those kids that busts her butt is practice and always comes in for extra work,” he said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better kid to coach. And very humble… even though she was the best kid in the area and probably the best right side in Kansas City as well, she was so quiet and kind and never had that cocky attitude of I am better than you. Jazz was so easy to coach because you would tell her something once and she was willing to try it. She didn’t care how bad she looked at it. Those players are hard to find.”
MAKING AN IMPACT
To say that excitement is brewing around the Shawnee Heights and Topeka Impact programs with Sweet’s success and pending appearance back home for the Final Four is an understatement.
“She had a phenomenal solo block (in the regionals) and we were in our living room, jumping and screaming,” Curry said. “I am so pumped that my oldest daughter and I are going to watch her on Thursday. I coach 13s now for our Topeka Impact team and last night I was talking about her. They all know her because she played last year for our program and the girls are all so excited and a lot of them are going to watch her play as well. She is a hard worker and an amazing your woman, she deserves every bit of this.”
Evans bought tickets for all of the Impact club coaches, but he himself will not be at the match in Kansas City, he will be in Cancun for a family Christmas vacation, but he says “I will probably be the only one in Cancun, sitting at my TV in my hotel room at 5 in the afternoon watching NCAA volleyball instead of enjoying the beach.”
In addition to impacting the viewing habits of her former coaches and teams, Sweet’s success has drawn the eyes of parents and potential members of the Topeka Impact.
“Over the years we have developed some kids who have gone on to play D1, especially Jazz, who is playing the Final Four,” Evans said. “You get parents who have kids who are athletic and have that potential and it seems to be easier to grab those kids now than it was before we were developing those players. It definitely makes recruiting a lot easier because of the results we have produced. The level of play has grown tremendously and our region has grown tremendously. Not only are we recruiting top kids, but now thy are finding us.”
Curry echoed those sentiments about what Sweet’s success as well as that of other Division I stars, such as Stanford’s Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray, and the way it has shone the spotlight on the level of volleyball in the Kansas City area.
“The Kansas City region, the HOA region for club is insane, this area is extremely strong” Curry said. “You have Madison Lilley, who is at Kentucky, you have Fitzmorris and Jenna, and Jazz, and Megan Cooney at Illinois. You have all of those girls and then KC Power won the entire nationals last year and Impact got second at their level. It is just really neat to see where these girls are now, all of them. You can’t help but be excited and proud to see how, as amazing as they were in high school, have stepped up their game even more. I am just lucky to have had the opportunity to work with them.”