VNL 2024 schedule announced; USA women have Texas stop, men play in Canada
December 8, 2023
June 20, 2023
When the Yahtzee dice or Monopoly board comes out at the Ewert house, hit the deck. Even innocuous board games can stir a competitive fervor similar to an NCAA championship.
Which is understandable, considering that when they are all together there are six athletes under the same roof.
“Yahtzee gets very intense,” said Jordan Ewert, the second-oldest of the four siblings. “And I don’t know how it gets intense considering it’s just a dice game of chance.”
And the card game Nerts? Forget it.
Thomas Ewert, the father of the flock, won’t even play.
A distance runner in his heyday, Thomas is the most laid back of the Ewerts, and he, said his wife, Donna, prefers to keep his distance.
“We’re a boisterous group when we start to compete,” Donna said. “He is very quiet, not a pushy guy. And you get a bunch of people in there who are pushy, there are certain games that he is like, ‘Nope. I don’t want to play that.’ ”
But when the dust settles, the Ewerts return to being a tight-knit family who share the bond of volleyball:
— Jessica, at 30, the oldest sibling, was an accomplished player at the high school and club levels.
— Jordan, 26, played at Stanford, where he was second-team All-MPSF as a senior, and then three years professionally in Germany. This season, the 6-foot-4 outside hitter will move to the French club Saint-Nazaire. He’s on the USA 30-player Volleyball Nations League roster but hasn’t traveled to the first two rounds.
— Jenna, 23, was a setter at Colorado — she eclipsed 3,000 assists and 1,000 digs in her career — before spending her fifth year at Texas, where she won a national title last fall. She will play professionally for German club Munster this season.
— Josh, a 6-foot-4 19-year-old, is the “baby” and will enter his sophomore year at UC San Diego in the fall. Last season, he earned Big West All-Freshman honors despite being slowed by mono.
“To me, it’s really special, but it’s also normal,” Jenna said. “I don’t think we appreciate it as much as we should, but it’s something that we … we all have this bond, and we all have gone through these similar experiences.
“It’s a really cool lifestyle.”
Even if it gets a little competitive.
The Ewert kids agree: Their competitive streak comes from their mother. Nerts brings out the best (worst?) in her.
“She’s relentless in that game,” Jordan said.
For her part, Donna Ewert isn’t exactly sure about the origins of her appetite for competition. She grew up with two brothers who were a good bit older — five-and-a-half and seven years — but, she said, she really didn’t try to keep up or compete with them simply because she physically could not.
So she chalks it up to something innate. She always wanted to play baseball, like her brothers, but, of course, that was mostly unheard of for a girl at that time. She did ballet and gymnastics before finally talking her father into letting her play softball.
In the summer after her sophomore year of high school, her mother took her to a camp for volleyball.
“I fell in love with it,” she said.
Though she was late getting involved in the game – she played only two years in high school and one year of club – she showed enough that she earned an opportunity to play at Cal. But her collegiate volleyball career ended before it started.
The summer before her freshman year, she was involved in a car accident and suffered a back injury. She hadn’t completed her rehab and physical therapy before school was scheduled to begin, and, treatments being less advanced than they are now, she was experiencing too much pain to play.
That was the end of her time in competitive volleyball, but it wasn’t the end of her involvement in the sport.
When Jessica was in junior high at a small charter school near their home in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Antioch, one of the teacher’s daughters wanted to start a volleyball team, and Donna was asked to be the coach.
“I don’t think I even knew what volleyball was at that point,” Jessica said. “I just signed up because that’s what everyone was doing. The rest is history.”
For Donna Ewert, it was a one-year gig, but the flame was lit with her children.
Jessica played throughout middle school and high school and also played at the Golden Bear club in Berkley. That, however, was as far as she wanted to go in the sport.
“While I enjoyed the sport, I am very much, I think, an academic more so,” she said. “So when it came time to go into college (she attended Vanguard in Orange County then went to Chapman’s law school) I really hadn’t seen anyone get a sports scholarship. It really wasn’t something on my radar.
“I just decided to go to college to focus on academics instead of focusing on sports.”
To be clear, life in the Ewert household wasn’t all about volleyball. It wasn’t even all about sports.
Thomas and Donna Ewert insisted that their kids participate in (at least) one athletic activity and one music activity.
“You learn to work with people on a team or, as an individual, you learn to push yourself, and you see your work because you have only yourself to rely on,” Donna said. “There’s benefits to both.”
Jordan also played soccer and insisted that’s what he would play in college. (More on that later.)
Jenna was a state champion gymnast in her youth before suffering a knee injury. She took up swimming after that and set numerous pool records along the way, and Donna said she believes Jenna just as easily could have landed a swimming scholarship. Josh, also a swimmer, said volleyball was never pushed on any of the siblings.
“All of us played different sports,” Jessica added. “There was never a particular sport pushed on us. They just wanted us to play a sport. I actually remember trying to deter Jordan from getting into it for a while. I was like, ‘No this is my thing. Go find your own thing.’
“Eventually, the four of us kind of found our way into it.”
When it comes to music, all of them, Jenna said, can sing, and Jordan plays the guitar. (Although Josh, when asked about his hidden talent, said, “I’m really good at building Legos. That’s all I got.”)
Jessica said she and her siblings all were involved in choir at some point and were part of numerous church musical productions.
Jordan, even into his college days, Donna said, sometimes would tune up his voice during practices, often to the chagrin of his teammates.
Those same teammates, however, were happy to have Jordan on their side when it came time for matches. They were happy he decided to switch sports.
Even though he would watch Jessica’s volleyball matches with some interest, Jordan insisted he would not play volleyball. He was all about soccer, and nothing would change his mind.
Donna Ewert remembers his repeated assertions that he would not play the same sport as his older sister, even after attending a local camp that introduced young athletes to volleyball.
“He kept saying to me, ‘Mom, I’m not going to play volleyball,’ ” she said. “I don’t know why he was saying it, but he just kept saying, ‘I’m not going to play volleyball, mom.’ I was like, ‘That’s fine, Jordan. I don’t care.’ ”
But during his eighth-grade year, during a break in soccer season, he was invited to join a team for a volleyball tournament in Sacramento. He had been asked before but was unable to do so because of soccer commitments, but this time, he went.
It proved to be a fateful decision.
While there, he was noticed by former USC star and two-time Olympian Gabe Gardner, who was coaching one of the club teams in the tournament. Gardner asked Jordan to join his team, which he did.
After that, he joined Roger Worsley’s Pacific Rim club, and that sealed his deal as a volleyball player.
“He was a really intense coach, and he had high expectations of us,” Jordan said. “Around when I turned 16, he sat me down for a conversation because that’s when college scouts started scouting us, when we were going into our junior years.
“He said … you have to decide now whether this is something you are going to take seriously and pursue now or if this is just going to be a hobby or a pastime.
“Honestly, it was a pretty easy decision for me because I loved volleyball, and I loved playing and competing. … The more serious I got, the more I wanted to push it and see how far I got.”
As Jordan played through his years as an outside hitter in club and at Deer Valley High School, someone else was watching closely. Jenna.
“She wasn’t like other kids who wandered around and played with people,” Donna remembered. “She just kind of soaked it all in. And finally one day, she goes, ‘Mom, I want to try that.’ ”
Jenna started to take volleyball seriously at age 13. She initially was a right side but, at 16, she was moved to setter because, her coaches believed, she wouldn’t have the size to play outside. (She grew to 5-10.)
Having an older brother in the game had its benefits and drawbacks.
Jenna said Jordan’s club team would allow her to play when they had open gyms, so she was competing against a bunch of guys. None of them, she said, took it easy on her. Especially not Jordan.
“He’s my older brother. He wants me to do well. He wants me to be the best I can be,” she said. “So even if it’s a simple game, he’s like, ‘Jenna, do better. This is stupid.’
“When I got older he would come to games, and if I made any type of mistake at all, I was like, ‘I’m going to hear it after the game.’ He’s always been right there with me when I was choosing colleges, when I was going to transfer, when I was going to play pro. He’s always taken that first step right before me. He’s always pushed me.”
Jordan acknowledged he might have been a little too hard on Jenna at times. And he was never sure how she would react. Depending on how hard he pushed her, he said, she would either run away crying or run at him and try to tackle him.
“Obviously, being the older brother, I guess I took on a little bit of that tough-guy role,” he said. “I don’t know if it helped her or not. I think she learned more from watching me than listening to me.
“She’s a tough cookie. She can take a lot from anyone. She took it well, but there would be, obviously, occasions where I pushed too far. … Typical sibling relationship.”
Josh, meanwhile, didn’t need much coaxing. By the time he was 7, Donna said, his mind was made up.
Donna said she did try to hold Josh back from volleyball but not because she didn’t want him to play. She simply didn’t think it was wise for him to start so young, fearing injury and/or burnout.
“I didn’t want to pigeon-hole him into being a volleyball player,” she said. “I didn’t want him to be sick of it. I didn’t want him to feel like he needed to do it because his siblings were doing it.
“I couldn’t stop him. He just kept saying, ‘Please!’ ”
Said Josh: “From an early age, I’ve always watched my brother and sisters play, so it’s what I just followed into. Whenever I am on the court and I’m playing in the game, and it’s a very competitive environment and both teams are just going at each other … I just know this is my sport and I belong here.”
There might be some debate as to which of the Ewerts is the best volleyball player. But only one can boast of being an NCAA champion.
Jenna was part of Texas’ team that, this past fall, went 28-1 and won the NCAA title, the program’s fourth. Her contributions were sporadic: appearances in 19 matches (35 sets) with 47 assists and four aces. But, in her mind, spot duty was a small tradeoff to be part of a national-championship team.
When she decided to pursue a fifth year of volleyball after her four years at Colorado, she said, she wasn’t quite sure at which level she wanted to play. Was she going to go big or something smaller and more “academic”?
Once she put her name into the transfer portal and started talking to prospective programs, she decided to aim high.
She actually put her name in the transfer portal twice. The first was December of her senior year, just after the conclusion of Colorado’s season. But her transfer wasn’t going to be immediate as she intended to finish her undergrad degree in Boulder.
San Diego reached out to her, but it, like other schools, wanted a transfer who was going to arrive in the spring, which Jenna was not prepared to do. So she put her name back in the portal in the spring, and, she said, Texas was one of the first schools to respond.
Jenna had been to Austin. She has family there, so she had some familiarity with the area. Plus, this was the Longhorns, a perennial power.
“Holy crap,” she said about her reaction. “I can’t say no to this.”
When she made contact with Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott, she said he pulled no punches and made no promises.
“He was like, ‘We’re Texas. We’re going for a national championship next year. I want you to come in and compete,’ ” she said. “He was like, ‘Saige (Ka’aha’ania-Torres) has been here a little bit longer, but I want you to come in here and compete, and if you don’t win a starting spot, the B side is going to be the No. 2 team in the country.’
“So it was just come in and compete and if not (starting), we need you to buy in and realize that we’re going for a national championship.”
It came to fruition when Texas swept Louiville in the title match.
“I didn’t really have the smoothest four years — and this is not against Colorado. I loved the program, I loved Colorado — but we didn’t have the easiest time with the volleyball. And then going to Texas … and meeting these girls, it’s just a different atmosphere.
“I really don’t know how to explain it. To actually grind all season and get what we had been working for the whole six months … was the most insane feeling in the world.”
Once Jordan got hooked on volleyball, playing professionally always was in the back of his mind. He also started participating in camps with USA Volleyball, and the coaches there reinforced the importance of playing professionally as a means of preparing to play at the highest level.
That would be the national team, and Jordan said he has had his sights set on that possibility for some time. For the past three years, he has played in Europe. As much as that experience might have helped him grow as a player, he said it sometimes was a lonely existence.
His first two years playing in Germany were affected by the pandemic. Fans were not permitted at matches, and his family was unable to come over to see him play or join him for the holidays.
“I became pretty isolated those couple years because of that whole situation,” he said.
Then, last summer, Jenna arrived to play for a German club, and that was a nice pick-me-up for both.
“Having that connection of family close to me for the first time I had ever had overseas was pretty surreal,” Jordan said. “She came out for my birthday, which was unreal. I hadn’t spent my birthday with anyone in my family for I can’t remember how long. Having her there was special.”
They got to meet up on a few weekends when their clubs would play close to each other. This coming season, even though Jordan will be in France, they can make arrangements to get together for Christmas via a short flight.
Jordan has spent the past three Christmases by himself.
“It’s little things like that,” Jenna said. “Sometimes this lifestyle can be a little isolating when you go play pro, but because we get to do it together, it makes it more special.
“Because we’re all so close, we can talk about it, and we understand what everybody is going through.”
Josh, too, has aspirations of going pro.
“That has always been my dream, to play professional volleyball and try to make as high up in that career as possible,” he said.
There is a seven-year difference between him and Josh, and, Jordan said, he has missed a lot of Josh’s “growing up” moments in the game.
“Which was tough,” Jordan admitted. “But for the most part, he’s a pretty independent kid and kind of does his own thing. He does it a little bit differently than I do, but it works for him. More than anything it’s me watching him form his own path and become his own player.”
For her part, Jessica watches with pride as her younger siblings move their way up the ranks.
“I am beyond proud of them,” she said. “I don’t think they’re done. It’s cool and exciting to see everything they’ve done, but it’s even more exciting to feel like there’s even more in them.”
So who is the best player among the siblings?
Jenna and Josh agree Jordan might be the best based on experience alone. Jessica, who might have the most objective opinion in the family, breaks it down this way:
“I think Jordan has the most passion for it, if it really comes down to it,” Jessica said, noting he would spend endless hours on his iPad watching video of his matches.
“Jenna is maybe the most natural. She did gymnastics for a long time, and … she just has a good sense of her body and her body spacing, so it just makes it very natural when it comes to volleyball.
“I think Josh is the strongest.”
Of course, when informed of Jessica’s comment about Josh’s strength, Jordan objected.
“Wait a minute. Hold on,” he protested. “I’m 100% stronger than my little brother.”
He did allow, however, that Josh probably is more physically gifted overall. In Germany, Jordan said, he was viewed by some as a “dirty” player, one who walked the line on throwing, swiping or power tipping the ball across the net.
But that is just how his game has evolved: He often beats the block with brains rather than brawn. Josh, he said, will have the ability to hit through people.
“What my little brother has is, like, crazy physical ability on the court,” Jordan said. “I have only seen a few people hit the ball as hard as he does. He has one of those naturally gifted arms, and he knows how to use it and can hit the living snot out of the ball.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that, ‘I saw your little brother play, and, dude, he’s got an arm.’ He has qualities I wish I had. I think he could be a really incredible player if he got the right coaching and really dedicated everything to it. He could be really special.”
Josh didn’t get to show a lot of that at UC San Diego in his freshman season. He contracted mono and strep throat during finals week of the fall semester, and that kept him out of action for eight weeks.
Then, because of injuries and ailments on the team, he was moved to right side rather than playing his natural outside position. But now with a year of collegiate experience under his belt, Josh hopes to take a big step in 2024.
“I love the team. I love the chemistry. Everyone is cool,” he said. “We might not have done as well as we wanted to in the season, but, as a team, we have all improved a lot, especially myself. I’m just working on keeping my serving more consistent and getting a bigger block up there and getting stronger.”
Said Donna: “It’s tough (for Josh) coming up underneath Jordan and Jenna. I know he feels the pressure of – he probably would never admit this – but I think he feels that pressure of, ‘I need to be as good as they are.’ That’s really tough on a younger sibling.
“I wanted him to have his successes on his own and not compare himself. But, ultimately, that’s where he ended up.”
And if there can be no consensus as to which Ewert is the best, they always can let a game of Nerts or Yahtzee decide it.
Just warn Thomas Ewert so he can leave the house.