If it seems like Eisenhower junior Ryleigh Jackson is a natural at volleyball, it’s not because she has been playing the game since she was a child.
In truth, Jackson didn’t know what it meant to close a block or what a quick slide was until she was in the seventh grade. She had just moved into the Goddard school district and in an attempt to make new friends, she decided to join the school’s volleyball team.
Fast forward to this fall and now Jackson is one of the best middle blockers in the area, plays all six rotations on the court for Eisenhower coach Bethany Trimble, and is a vital part of a Tigers team that will play at the Class 5A tournament in Topeka for the second year in a row on Friday.
So how did Jackson go from not playing sports five years ago to an accomplished volleyball player and a four-time state medalist in track and field?
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“I think it’s because I have a lot of determination,” Jackson said. “Whenever I put my mind to something, I keep working and working until I succeed at it. I’m very goal-oriented, so I think that helps me with my sports.”
Before volleyball captured Jackson’s attention, cheerleading was her passion. She was a competitive cheerleader until the eighth grade and Jackson feels like she was able to build a strength base and her conditioning, which translated to the volleyball court.
At 5-foot-8, she doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional middle blocker. But she’s worked tirelessly to improve her vertical leap and this season she has led Eisenhower in blocks with 123 and is hitting .327 with 231 kills.
“She can jump like crazy,” Trimble said. “She actually gave one of our younger players a concussion and knocked out her out of practice for two weeks because she can get up so high and hit it so hard. She felt really badly, but it’s kind of indicative of the power that she has out of that middle swing.”
This has been a breakout season for Eisenhower setter Lainey Kastens, who is playing the position for the first time and is among the state leaders in assists (953). Not only does she have outside Jordan Evans (team-high 305 kills) and middle Brooke Smith (team-high .369 hitting percentage), but Jackson gives her a third reliable option.
“And it’s not like she’s going up there and just slamming the ball down,” Kastens said. “Ryleigh is really good at viewing the court and she likes to cut her angles and use her deep corners, so anytime I can give her the ball I know she’s going to put it down or at least throw the other team out of system.”
In the past, Trimble has used Jackson as a weapon on the front row to hit and block. This season, however, Jackson has been asked to play all six spots and not come off the court.
“There’s so many different techniques and things that people learn through the years and I had to pretty much learn all of that in like two weeks,” Jackson said. “I’m pretty hard on myself, so I put pressure on myself and it’s a lot to handle. But I think the flip side is the success, that’s the payoff.”
In typical Jackson fashion, she has graded out as Eisenhower’s best passer this season.
And her determination isn’t only on the volleyball court. She is president of the junior class at Eisenhower and a member of National Honor Society.
That’s why Trimble likes the challenge that awaits Eisenhower at the state tournament on Friday, as the team looks to make it to the semifinals on Saturday for the first time. It seems like whatever challenge comes Jackson’s way, she’s able to find success.
“Ryleigh is just a really great all-around kid and one of those that you love to have on your team,” Trimble said. “She’s really tough on herself and sometimes that makes it hard because she’s carrying more weight on the team this year. But I think that’s what makes her so good is because she takes that responsibility very seriously. She puts in the time and I think it’s showed this season in her play.”