Big hops: Michigan’s Kieffer-Wright also Big Ten high-jump champion

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Michigan volleyball middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright also high jumps for the Wolverines/Michigan photo

She says she can’t even touch the rim, which sits at exactly 10 feet.

But put a hitter in front of her on a volleyball court or, better yet, set the high-jump bar at 6 feet, and Michigan’s Claire Kieffer Wright can flat out get after it.

The 6-foot-1 Michigan middle, who led the Wolverines in blocking last season and was second in kills, recently won the Big Ten high-jump title, clearing 6 feet and a half inch, which is just a half inch less than her height.

“It’s great for her, because it’s something she needs to do and I think she balances it really well,” Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen said. “She’s really committed to being great at both. It’s been nothing but a positive.”

What’s more, Kieffer-Wright, who is finishing her junior year, was voted by her teammates as one of the captains on both on the volleyball and track and field teams.

“I was surprised especially by being picked as a track-and-field captain because my time is so split and I didn’t know people would want me as a leader,” she said. “For the majority of the year I’m back and forth, I have double days. This time of year is the only time I’m full-time track.”

Not for long.

Friday, she’ll be jumping in the NCAA East Preliminary Rounds in Lexington, Ky., hoping to keep it up and qualify for the NCAA Championships at Oregon June 8-10.

Claire Kieffer-Wright led Michigan in blocks and was second in kills in 2016/Michigan photo

If she makes it, Kieffer-Wright will then have a whole week off, because she’s one of 14 players headed to the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Italy and Austria from June 17-28 as part of the Big Ten Volleyball Foreign Tour Team.

“I’m very excited about it. One, because I’ve never been to Europe, and I can’t wait to play with the girls in the Big Ten,” she said. “I think the Big Ten is the best volleyball conference in the nation and there are some girls who are insanely good.

“I just can’t wait to meet and play with and talk to the girls I’ve hated for three years and wanted to beat for three years and get to know them, because I know they’re probably all so cool and really, really down to earth. I look at my teammates and that’s who they are and that would extend into the other girls on the other teams.”

And that’s not all.

Later this summer, she and Michigan teammate Cori Crocker are part of the 11-player roster for the U.S. Collegiate National Team that will train in Slovenia and play in 13th Annual European Global Challenge July 11-14 in Pula, Croatia. They are the only Big Ten players on the team.

“I can’t wait to spend time with Cori in Europe as well,” Kieffer-Wright said.

One can only imagine what the everyday student life is for Kieffer-Wright, a product of South Pasadena, Calif. The demands of playing college volleyball alone are intense. Being on a team like Michigan, which made it to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 last December before losing to Creighton in five, is obviously a year-round job.

But so is being a top-level high-jumper.

Kieffer-Wright, by the way, who has been measured to jump touch 10 feet, a half inch, barely above the rim, always knew she wanted to do both in college.

Her mom, Laura, who played volleyball at Ball State and Cincinnati, is from Indiana

“She told me, ‘The winters are really cold and there’s going to be a lot of snow.’ I knew I could easily have gone to school and lived in California my whole life, but I wanted to come here and try it.

“It’s been a fun experience, but I’m not going to lie, sometimes in the winter I miss home a lot more,” she said with a laugh, “but winter is temporary. And it’s such a great reward to have spring afterward.”

Many of the schools she considered were going to let her compete in both sports, she said, but the vibe she got at Michigan was best.

“I started getting letters for volleyball right at the end of my freshman year in high school, right after junior nationals,” Kieffer-Wright said. “I hadn’t considered myself to be very good in volleyball at that point, either.

“I started to get more letters my sophomore year, but track is so different. They wait almost until your senior year. So when I was visiting schools my junior year, I would tell the head volleyball coach straight out that I want to high jump. It’s a winter indoor season and spring outdoor season and volleyball is in the fall. I can’t remember a coach who said no, but some were a little more reluctant than others. They said they would work it out because they wanted me on their volleyball team. It was cool to be able to talk to both coaches.”

That included a visit her junior year to Michigan, where volleyball coach Mark Rosen made sure she met track coach James Henry.

“Our track coach has been awesome,” Rosen said. “He understood that she was coming here on a volleyball scholarship and that volleyball was her primary sport. But he knew from her high school days that she could be a real good high jumper, so good deal for him.”

Kieffer-Wright started high jumping as a freshman in high school.

“ … and I was not very good.”

Perhaps, but she got good in a hurry, winning the state title at 5-10 her sophomore year.

“And then my junior year was the first time I hit the 6-foot mark.”

As a senior, she hit 6 feet at two really big meets, the Mt. San Antonio College Relays and the Arcadia Invitational.

She didn’t get to 6-0 again until May 13 at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships. She was third in the Big Ten outdoors last year after jumping 5-11.5, but indoors hasn’t done as well as she would have liked.

“To finally get the confirmation that I’m one of the good high jumpers in the Big Ten and I can compete with the best and I can back up to the 6-foot mark felt really good.”

Part of that might have been learning how to juggle the demands of both sports. It’s also worth noting that Kieffer-Wright, who has been healthy as a college athlete — she does sprain her ankles now and then — came to Michigan with a a foot injury and subsequent surgery that plagued her as a freshman.

“Maybe her freshman year it was a bit of a struggle for everybody mainly because we were trying to figure it out,” Rosen admitted. “So she missed a little more volleyball than we wanted and I think she really suffered in track because we did some things in volleyball that probably got her tired.”

He said Kieffer-Wright is the kind of athlete who doesn’t want to miss anything with either team and there were times “she was dog tired.”

“We learned a lot and have been more user friendly her sophomore and junior years.”

Claire Kieffer-Wright after getting Big Ten high-jump gold medal May 13/Michigan photo

Now her next goal is to make it to Oregon. The top 12 from the meet in which she’s competing this week are guaranteed a spot. The competition is going to be fierce, but she enters the meet as the fifth-ranked jumper in the field and 11th overall in the NCAA this season.

“My mom has already booked a reservation,” Kieffer-Wright said. “Last year she did that, and I didn’t make it. I have to jump well. I have to to jump well again and keep peaking and I can be one of the top 12.

“I’ve never been to an NCAA indoors or outdoors, so I’m really hoping this year is the year. I want to go to Hayward Field (at Oregon) and I want to see my mom.”

Rosen likes her chances.

“She’s taken on a lot of challenges and beaten all of them,” he said. “She’s a real fun kid to coach. She’s super competitive, works her butt off and has a good balance about her. She’s grounded, gets it and keeps it all in perspective.”

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