Kayla Jeter could have been long gone.
But from the moment she blew out her knee before last season, the high-jumping Tennessee Vol knew she’d be back for what would be her second senior year.
For that matter, when coach Rob Patrick casually asked her about returning, Jeter bowed up.
“I’m coming back,” she told him. “I’m not going out like a punk. I had a great junior year. I’m not going out on an injury. Forget that. No way.”
No one seems happier about it than her roommate and best friend, reigning Southeastern Conference player of the year Kelsey Robinson.
“She’s helped me through so much,” Robinson said. “She’s helped me develop as a person. For me, volleyball’s my whole world. There’s nothing else. Kayla helps me to balance everything in my life and realize there are other things besides volleyball.”
Already you get the sense that Jeter is not your typical athlete. To begin with, she not only graduated early, in May she’ll have her master’s degree in sports psychology and motor behavior.
All that with rehabbing that knee and, as if that wasn’t enough, last spring learning that her mother had breast cancer.
“In my mind I wonder, who helps Kayla?” Robinson asked. “With everything she’s gone through, who helps Kayla? That’s just a testament to how strong she is. She’s so strong as a person both physically and mentally. You look at her and just say, ‘Wow.’ I wish I could be that person.”
Her comeback has been up and down in the court. Jeter might have started slowly, but pretty much proved she was all the way back when Tennessee won a five-set match against Georgia on October 7 in which she had a career-high 27 kills in 44 swings with only three errors, a .444 hitting percentage.
Jeter is from Solon, Ohio. Her father, Gary, was a 13-year NFL defensive lineman who was an All-American at Southern Cal.
“I’ve consulted him about the mental parts of the game and staying strong and focused,” said Kayla, a 5-foot-10 muscular athlete with big-time hops who never thought about going south to college.
“But coming from Ohio everyone goes to Ohio State or Michigan or (Ohio) and I was recruited by them but I just wanted something different,” Jeter said. “So I went to Tennessee for a visit and it just all clicked.”
She was a middle in high school and club.
“We just thought she would be a good outside hitter,” Patrick said. “She passed a little bit in club, not too much. Great kid, strong.”
Jeter said she had never spent any time in the south, but realized Knoxville was the place for her and when she asked her mom Leslie, she agreed.
“That kind of sealed the deal and here we are five years later, and I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”
Patrick was certainly glad. He said Jeter was extremely coachable and finally cracked the starting lineup late in her freshman year. “She just listened to us. She took a ton of reps and just got better and better and better and better,” he said.
As a sophomore in 2009 Jeter hit .251 and then in 2010 hit .304, and was second on the team with 340 kills, which earned her first-team All-SEC honors.
“So she was so ready for her senior year,” Patrick said, shaking his head.
Jeter laughed nervously when recalling the injury.
“August 19. I remember it perfectly clear. I Tweeted that it was going to be a great day. I saw my academic counselor that day and planned out my whole future. I was graduating in December and had it all planned out, this golden day.”
Jeter said Patrick stopped them in practice and told the players to pick up the pace. The next thing she knew she had landed on the foot of a teammate who came under the net.
“Pop noise,” Jeter said. “I knew. I had witnessed two ACL tears before with teammates.” An MRI confirmed Jeter’s suspicion.
“The first three nights [were] sleepless. Never a ‘Why me?’ But crap. I was on the poster, I was a senior, I was going to lead the team.”
“It was my year, I was going to live it up!
“But my focus had to change. I couldn’t sit there and cry and let it be about me. I just decided to give to the team and work hard on my rehab.”
That wasn’t lost on Patrick, who has been at Tennessee since 1997, twice winning national coach of the year honors.
“The most incredible thing about the whole thing was how she never took,” Patrick said. “She never took anything from the team. She gave, she gave, she gave. Just unbelievable.”
The surgery was September 7. Jeter took an aggressive attitude with the trainers.
“My practice was my rehab. I had to go in every day and kill it.”
It got harder in the spring when Leslie Jeter told her this past March she had breast cancer. In early August, she had a mastectomy and has been through chemo.
“It shifted my mindset to things that mattered,” Kayla admitted. “We go through college and playing like this is it and this is all I know and this is my identity, but when something like that hits so close to home it changes everything and puts everything in perspective.
“It could be worse. So I just go into every day and every practice making the most of that day because you never know what might happen.”
Last season Tennessee had a fantastic season without Jeter. The Vols went 28-4, 19-1 in the SEC, before losing to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, 15-12 in the fifth set.
This season basically the entire team is back, plus Jeter.
“She does anything we ask her to do, the ultimate team player—ultimate—and the most coachable kid in the world,” Patrick said. “She’s smart, plays within our system, plays within herself, a low-error kid.”
Robinson thinks the whole experience made her friend a better player.
“For her to come back and make the impact she’s making is, again, a testament to who she is,” Robinson said. “And having the injury has helped her develop parts of her game she wouldn’t have had.
“She’s had to focus on her passing, making shots that normally would have been just part of the physical game for her. Now it’s like, where do I place the ball? And that’s where I help her, that’s my game. I’m not physical, I have shots.”
Actually, at 6’2”, the powerful Robinson is pretty physical, but you get the point.
And at this writing, Tennessee stood 13-5 and not ranked in the latest AVCA or Volleyball magazine poll, but came in at 18th in the RPI. Plenty of time to gear up for a late-season run.
Jeter has spent time at all three front-row positions and through UT’s first 18 matches, she had 119 kills and was hitting .232.
“I’m just trying to do whatever we needed. It just time to get used to being back on the court.”
No wonder Robinson says simply, “She’s the full package. Best friend, teammate, support system.”