On the eve of the 2017 volleyball season, Cincinnati’s fearsome outside hitter Jordan Thompson was abruptly sidelined with a UCL injury to her elbow.
UCL, like, the Bearcats’ opponents were Unbelievably Crazy Lucky to see her in street clothes on the bench all season.
Well, 2018 looks more familiar to Cincinnati now that Thompson’s furious set of skills is back in place.
The Bearcats are 10-4 overall (and No. 11 in last week’s VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC) after winning their American Athletic Conference opener last Friday at East Carolina.
In that match, the 6-foot-4 Thompson, a junior from Edina, Minnesota, had 18 kills, hit .548 after making one error in 31 attacks, and had an ace and 10 digs.
Through the last time NCAA stats were updated on September 21, Thompson led the nation by a healthy margin in kills with 342 — Lindsey Ruddins of UC Santa Barbara is second with 252 — and kills per set (6.22).
She’s shrugged off the injury and ready to defend her 2016 AAC player-of-the-year honors.
Thompson is trusting her arm more each day, and also believing that last year’s unpleasant off-ramp will not define her college experience.
“It was a little bit upsetting, obviously, because I knew it would make me miss the season. But I got the redshirt and knew I had two years left with the recruits we had coming in,” said Thompson, who has topped 30 kills in five matches this season.
“I tried to look at it as a blessing disguise, and then try to come back and be better. It was a different role, being there to help teammates. I learned a lot watching the game an entire year, and I feel I see things better. That’s definitely translated to how I play on the court now. It’s helped a lot on defense (watching for tips and tells from hitters).”
Cincinnati was a modest 13-19 last year, a bitter pill after back-to-back seasons with more than 20 wins and a real sense that under head coach Molly Alvey, the program was on the rise. But Alvey didn’t panic, and the roster ended up with a pretty solid 2017 campaign, coming up just short in the conference race when other injuries derailed their hard work on the last two weekends of the season.
“Losing a player like Jordan, and the timing of it, was pretty critical to the team. We work hard on being good teammates; when you lose a significant player like Jordan at that point, no matter who you are, that’ll be a huge mental task,” said Alvey, in her seventh year running the Bearcats. “And the other key point is, if we didn’t have toughest non-conference schedule last year, it’d have to be No. 2 or 3, because we were stacked with competition. I felt like we needed that experience, but to take a hit like that and be blindsided … the team did as well as it could in that moment.
“In the long term, we played really well in conference. I think that all set us up for (today’s) mental toughness we show. To do what they did under those circumstances … we were definitely handcuffed.”
One indicator that Cincinnati is next to unflappable is seen in how the team responded to senior setter Jade Tinglehoff getting hurt at the Colorado State Invitational at the start of September. Freshman Armania Heckenmueller has stepped into the job, and the team has been sturdy enough to keep improving instead of backtracking or being tentative with the lineup change.
“You put freshman in that role, that’s a heavy task in that schedule. What we’ve done since is pretty impressive, and it’s all about how you respond,” Alvey said. “You might want to give less and feel sorry for yourself, but we’ve had contributions from everyone in a lot of different roles to elevate and support our freshman. When you have to move people in and out, but still sustain a level of play, we don’t point fingers. And this has been great experience for the younger kids; we can be creative as coaches, and the team has responded.”
Thompson knows she’ll have to do more than just blindly pound away on offense, as defenses are well aware of her reputation and will do anything short of sitting on her shoulders to combat her power. But an athlete thoughtful enough to not let a severe injury keep her down is the type who loves the idea of lifting her game — she’s played a ton of back row this year for the first time in her college career, and she maintained superior discipline on her diet and conditioning while she was hurt.
“It’s become clear people are (scouting me) and planning for what I bring to the table; I’m always working on different shots and not doing the same thing every time,” Thompson said. “People can see the film; I want to mix up the shots and keep developing as a player over the season. I try not to focus on the stats – it’s sometimes cool to see that, but it’s not something I pay a lot of attention to. We’ve seen how much we’ve grown in the preseason, and we have a lot of momentum now. We know what we are capable of and are excited to see how conference will play out for us.”
“She wants to learn. Zero percent of her thinking is that she’s the player she is. She’s constantly looking to get better,” Alvey added.
“There are things to work on. She had to learn to use that arm again. The muscles, the movements aren’t natural, and for us who see her all the time, there are things that still don’t look right. There’s another level I know she will get to by the end of the season because she’s still re-training herself.”
Cincinnati is back in action Friday when it plays host to SMU. Houston visits on Sunday.