By Mike Malloy for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Nebraska — Jazz Sweet has always been good in school, but never liked introductions. She often found herself correcting the pronunciation of her given first name — Jzanasia (ja-NAY-shuh) — on the first day of class.
“Every roll call, they’d get it wrong,” Sweet said. “You don’t say the ‘Z.’ That throws them off.”
Even those who worked in print struggled.
“With so many sportswriters writing about her, it’s good to have a nickname,” Sweet’s mother Nicole Malone said.
Sweet, a junior right side for second-ranked Nebraska, has been talked and written about since becoming a club-volleyball phenomenon in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas. Mark Evans, director of Topeka Impact, first saw Sweet when she was in sixth grade. Tall, athletic, and shy were Evans’ first observations. The shyness eventually went away while her skillset grew. By the time Sweet was in eighth grade, her talent was undeniable.
“She was way above everybody else’s skill level,” Evans said.
Evans decided to take a chance with his rising star and put Sweet on his 17-and-under team when she was 14. Both Sweet and her mother were nervous about the age difference.
“Are you sure?” Malone asked. “The team is together a lot and you want them to have that friendship. With that age difference, it can be difficult to relate.”
Sweet felt a little out of place the first few practice sessions, especially off the court.
“I didn’t always know what they were talking about, but they tried to involve me as much as they could,” Sweet said. “They knew I was an important part of the team and they wanted to include me.”
Eventually, her skill not only enabled her to belong, but thrive. With Sweet as the team’s best hitter, Topeka Impact finished second one year at a national tournament, third at another. All under the widening eyes of a growing gaggle of college coaches.
“At 14, having 50 coaches around you scribbling notes is pretty nerve-wracking,” Sweet said. “I’d be like ‘Mom, can you take a peak and see what they’re writing?’ ”
When Malone wasn’t peering over someone’s shoulder, she listened to the other parents in the stands wonder, “Who is that?”
“Somebody would ask ‘what college is she going to?’ and somebody else would say ‘wherever the hell she wants to,’ ” Malone said.
Sweet, who was also a standout runner and basketball player, settled on volleyball as her main sport after her freshman year at Shawnee Heights High School. That soon seemed an obvious choice.
The high-jumping left-hander led Shawnee Heights to a state championship in 2016, after finishing third the previous two years. The Kansas Volleyball Association made Sweet a first-team all-state player three times, and PrepVolleyball.com ranked her the No. 12 prospect in the nation.
“Jazz is by far the best kid that’s ever come out of Topeka, and one of the top ones to come out of the Kansas City area,” Evans said.
Though many colleges were interested, two rose to the top of her list — Nebraska and Kansas. The Jayhawks were just down the road from Topeka, and in 2015 reached the final four for the first time in program history. Evans left the decision to Sweet and her family, but said he was always rooting for Nebraska to come out on top.
One visit to Lincoln ended the suspense.
“That first match at Devaney (Nebraska’s always sold-out arena) you barely even knew there was another team there,” Sweet said. “Plus, they were hanging banners.”
Another, big, banner was hung after Sweet’s freshman season. She began the 2017 season with 14 kills against nationally ranked Oregon — the second-most in a first match for a Nebraska player in 20 years. The next night, she hit .323 with 16 kills against Florida. She finished the year with a .273 hitting percentage and was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team.
Then Sweet hit .375 with 12 kills in a victory over Penn State in the NCAA national semifinals in Kansas City.
“That whole Husker section, I think about half of them I knew,” Sweet told Omaha television station KMTV after the victory. “(Nebraska) gave me exactly what I asked for. They told me I’d be in this situation.”
Two nights later, with her mother and father, Harvey, in attendance, Nebraska beat Florida for its fifth national championship.
Last season as a sophomore, Sweet averaged 2.24 kills per set, and was at her best against top teams. She had double-digit kills against ranked opponents Florida, Creighton, Minnesota, and Michigan during the regular season. In the NCAA final four, she had nine kills in Nebraska’s semifinal victory over Illinois, and then 10 more in a five-set loss to Stanford.
This year could be different in two significant ways for Nebraska. Team leadership was not in question the past two seasons, with players like All-American setter Kelly Hunter and two-time All-American outside hitter Mikaela Foecke on the roster, but now coach John Cook has no seniors. Taking charge falls to juniors like middle Lauren Stivrins, outside Lexi Sun, and Sweet.
It starts, Sweet said, with good grades. That never been a problem for Sweet, a management major who has twice been on the All-Big Ten Academic team.
“Being as good off the court will translate on the court,” Sweet said.
Those who know Sweet best describe her as focused, but that sometimes belies a quick wit.
“She’s one of the more serious ones, but she has a lot of sly jokes that you’ll miss if you’re not paying attention,” sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis said.
Inside the lines, Sweet is hoping to continue threatening opposing blockers while expanding her game. Evans, her club coach, said she was one of the better passers on her high school teams, but at Nebraska she’s primarily been front row only. That could change this year, though Cook offered his typically unvarnished assessment of her back-row play after last Thursday’s practice.
“She’s competing right now, but she lost the battle today. She’s got a chance, but she’s got to take it,” Cook said. “Hopefully she’ll find another kill a game than she had last year and find another block a game than she had last year. She’s got to be a point-scorer for us.”
The tests will start quickly as Nebraska opens the season with home matches Friday against No. 18 Creighton and Saturday against UCLA.
“We’re ready to apply what we’ve been working on. See other teams, see how we compare,” Sweet said.
Nebraska will surely extend its sellout streak this weekend, and amid the 8,000 fans will be Sweet’s parents, and her grandfather, Walter Malone. He was Sweet’s first coach at the Topeka YWCA, teaching her how to time her jump and spot opposing blockers. He also was the first person to call her Jazz, a decision still providing practical benefits.
“Communicating with teammates — Jzanasia, you can’t get that out too fast on the court — Jazz is easier,” Sweet said.