By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– At 2:10 p.m., when the final bell rang at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, Jayna Francis’ journey would begin.
Her destination: Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., more than 200 miles away over heavily traveled and periodically gridlocked highways.
That’s where Metro Volleyball Club of D.C. practiced from 7 to 10 p.m., and that’s where Francis honed the skills she’s shown as a University of Virginia freshman. Starting in December of her senior year at Princess Anne, Francis and her mother, Lisa, made the seven-hour round trip to D.C. and back several times each week.
“Honestly, I don’t know how she did it,” UVA head coach Aaron Smith said.
Francis would drive from Virginia Beach to Newport News, where her mother works as a vascular technician at Riverside Regional Medical Center. From there, Lisa Francis would drive while Jayna studied, with breaks for FaceTime chats with friends. They’d also listen to audio books and have mother-daughter talks.
They’d usually get home by 2 a.m., Jayna said, but her mother remembers one drive to Virginia Beach, in a snowstorm, that lasted seven hours.
Even so, Lisa Francis savored the hours in the car with her daughter.
“Loved EVERY minute of it,” she wrote in a text message. “The drive time gave me some of the best opportunities to enjoy my daughter … She gave up a lot to make that commute, but graduated with a 4.4 GPA and learned how to manage her time. I believe these things prepared her for UVA.”
Jayna could have played for a club in Tidewater, but she faced elite competition with Metro, both in practices and in matches, and that helped prepare her for the rigors of Division I volleyball. She also made the commute to D.C. as a 10th-grader.
As a junior, she accepted a scholarship offer from Virginia, so her future was set, but Francis chose to compete for Metro as a senior anyway.
“That’s how she is,” Smith said. “She tries to find ways to get in the gym extra and just loves coming to practice. She loves the sport and is passionate about it.”
Another UVA freshman, Mattison Matthews, displayed the same commitment in high school, Smith said. Matthews traveled from her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, to Spartanburg, S.C., about 200 miles away, to practice with and play for the Upward Stars club.
“I think it speaks to this freshman class,” Smith said, “how much volleyball means to them.”
This is Smith’s third year as head coach of the Cavaliers, who finished 8-20 overall in 2018. They’re 5-5 this season as they head into this weekend’s Jefferson Cup at Memorial Gym.
UVA hosts Lehigh (5-6) at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Elon (4-6) at 10 a.m. Saturday, and UNC Greensboro (6-5) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Francis, a 6-0 outside hitter, impressed during the preseason and earned a spot in the Cavaliers’ rotation. Her role grew, however, when outside hitter Grace Turner, a 6-3 sophomore who had 212 kills in 2018, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Virginia’s third match.
“I’m just trying to fill the big shoes she left,” Francis said.
Coming into the season, Smith said, the coaching staff expected Francis to “kind of be in and out of the lineup. Now we’ve kind of said, ‘You know what? We’re going to roll with it and work through the growing pains.’
“Once Grace went down, it became a little bit more clear: ‘Whether you’re ready or ready here and there, you have to be ready.’ Jayna’s embraced it really well. She’s had some ups and downs. She’s had a couple great matches, and a couple matches where she struggled. But because of the player she is, the workaholic she is, she’s going to catch on to that level pretty quickly.”
At Princess Anne, Francis was twice named player of the year in the Virginia High School League’s Class 5. (The Cavaliers finished 29-0 after winning the Class 5 state title in 2018.) At UVA, she’s one of three freshmen playing regularly for the Wahoos, along with her roommate, Maddie Boylston, and Matthews.
“They’ve played a considerable amount,” Smith said, “but we’re still trying to figure out if that’s going to be the case the whole year, because we have some upperclassmen who are kind of right in line with where they are.
“So we’re giving the first-years some chances and seeing how much growth they can make during the non-conference [portion of the schedule]. In the practice gym we’ve got a lot of good battles within those positions. So, I don’t know that we’re going to roll with the freshmen the whole time, but I’m happy with how they’ve come in and impacted our program, in terms of what they’re able to bring and raise the level in our practice gym.”
Francis, whose father is in the U.S. Navy, was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. She later lived in Hawaii, Florida, Rhode Island and Northern Virginia before moving with her family to Virginia Beach as a second-grader.
“This is the longest we’ve been in one place,” Francis said.
She rode horses as a girl before deciding to focus on volleyball in high school. She chose UVA in part because of its volleyball program, but also because of the academic opportunities the school offered.
“She is a great student,” Smith said. “When she came on her visit, we showed her the chemistry lab, and she thought that was just as cool as Mem Gym, being in the locker room and playing volleyball.”
Francis has a passion for math and science and is considering a major in biochemistry.
“After college, I’m thinking about maybe going into the military to get med school paid for, and then maybe work for the military,” Francis said. “I’d love to do that.”
That’s well in the future. For now, she’s focused on her studies and on helping elevate a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015.
“I definitely think it’s a really cool thing to be a part of,” Francis said. “Coach Aaron and his staff are [adding] really good pieces to make this a successful program, and I definitely think we’re making strides with the people we’re bringing into the program, the culture, and the elements of hard work and trust.”
Her cheering section during matches at Mem Gym, naturally, includes her mother, for whom the drive from Tidewater to Charlottesville seems like a breeze.
“I am LOVING that commute too!” Lisa Francis wrote.