By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In high school, Jennifer Wineholt rarely experienced losing on the volleyball court, starring on teams that won three straight state championships in California.
At the University of Virginia, victories have been more elusive for Wineholt, a graduate of Francis Parker School in San Diego. She’ll end her college career this month without having played on a team that finished with a winning record. Even so, she said, it’s been an invaluable experience for her.
“These four years have taught me more about myself than I think I could have imagined,” Wineholt said this week. “As competitors –– you know, I know, everybody at Virginia knows –– we hate losing. But in my four years I’ve learned that it’s more than just those wins and losses. I decided to come to a school that had the academic prowess, that had the team spirit and atmosphere.”
She could have chosen a college with a more established volleyball program, Wineholt said, “but I decided that I wanted to come to a school that I could help. Yes, when you look on paper, it doesn’t look like we’ve had a great four years here. But in reality we’re building the foundation for a very successful program.”
Injuries have derailed what began as a promising season for Virginia, which was 9-6 overall and 1-1 in the ACC after defeating Virginia Tech at Memorial Gymnasium on Sept. 27. Heading into their final two matches, the Cavaliers (11-18, 3-13) have lost four key players for the season: sophomore Grace Turner, senior Kelsey Miller, and freshmen Jayna Francis and Maddie Boylston.
“These girls are my sisters,” Wineholt said. “It was hard emotionally for us.”
Miller is one of UVA’s captains, along with Wineholt and junior Christine Jarman. Turner suffered a serious knee injury during the season’s first weekend.
“She’s given everything to this team, and she’s one of my best friends,” Wineholt said of Turner. “We’ve had a couple moments like, ‘Shoot, we’re not going to be able to play together again.’ And for Kelsey to go down as a senior and a captain and clearly a physical and emotional leader of this team, is hard, and all the other injuries that we’ve had this season have been tough.”
Wineholt has dealt with her own medical issues. “Every year it’s been something,” she said.
She played with a stress fracture in her shin her sophomore and junior seasons before having surgery last spring. This season, she missed about six weeks after she suffered a concussion, but she’s healthy again and would like nothing more than to help UVA finish the season with a flourish.
Virginia’s final home match is Friday at 6:30 p.m. against Boston College (19-9, 10-5) at Mem Gym. The Wahoos close the season Wednesday at Virginia Tech (10-18, 3-12).
Honored before the match Friday night will be Wineholt, Miller, Chino Anukwuem and Jelena Novakovic, along with student assistant coach Kiley Banker, whose playing career at UVA was cut short by injuries.
“That group has really been the leadership of this program in the three years that I’ve been head coach, because we haven’t had a lot of upperclassmen ahead of them,” Aaron Smith said.
“My first year, we just had one fourth-year. The next year we just had two, and one had been a transfer who came in for two years, Olivia [Wolodkewitsch]. And so this group has been a pretty big group and a pretty pivotal group in terms of laying the foundation and establishing the culture and priorities of the program.”
Through all the peaks and valleys, the fourth-years have stayed connected and been “great teammates to each other,” said Smith, a UVA assistant before taking over as head coach in 2017. “I think that’s a big reason why we feel so optimistic about the future. We’ve got that foundation of trustworthiness and caring for each other and a mindset that they’re going to come into the gym and work every day, no matter what the result was the previous weekend.”
Wineholt will have a sizable cheering section Friday night, including her parents and her sister, Alex, a University of Richmond alumna who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Also making the trip to Charlottesville will be relatives who live on the East Coast. Wineholt’s father has family in the Baltimore area and her mother in Tidewater.
Like her sister, who preceded her at Francis Parker, Wineholt grew up around the small private school, where their parents work. As much as she loves San Diego and its climate, Wineholt chose to venture elsewhere for college.
“It makes it sweeter to go back,” she said. “I wanted seasons. I wanted snow and fall and all that good stuff.”
Wineholt began her college career as a setter and has primarily played that position for the Cavaliers. But after a rash of injuries, the coaching staff moved Wineholt to right-side hitter this month.
“She just brings a maturity and confidence to the court,” Smith said.
Wineholt displays those qualities off the court as well. She had an internship with Nike this past summer in Beaverton, Ore., and will start working full time for the company after graduating from UVA in the spring.
“She makes a great impression on you, and she works hard, and she’s always there,” Smith said. “She’s reliable. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that she was offered it.”
He smiled. “That’s the Virginia degree. That’s the opportunity that Virginia offers. You come in, you work hard and get rewarded.”
Wineholt said she’s not sure all her job will entail –– she’ll be based in Beaverton –– but her title at Nike will be workplace design and connectivity coordinator.
At UVA, she’s majoring in foreign affairs, with a minor in religious studies. But she’s been an athlete for as long as she can remember and has always wanted to work in the sports world. She’s worn Nike gear for years, but that’s not what interested her most about the position.
“On the social justice side,” Wineholt said, “I really love their strategies as a corporation to kind of take a stand and use their platform. That’s something I’ve tried to do here, so I was really inspired by their message.”
At UVA, Wineholt has been an advocate for sexual-assault prevention and education, especially in the athletics community, working with the Set the Expectation organization founded by rape survivor Brenda Tracy. Wineholt has also, through her affiliation with Student Athlete Mentors (SAM), collaborated on Grounds with such groups as One in Four and One Less to educate UVA student-athletes about sexual assault.
Have her college years passed quickly? “Incredibly,” Wineholt said, smiling.
Not everything in her UVA volleyball career has unfolded the way she hoped it would, “but the program that we’re building is foundationally secure now,” Wineholt said. “We have the culture. We are recruiting the girls that want to be a part of a healthier, more positive, stronger culture, and that was my goal and our class’ goal when we came in.
“It was frustrating at times. Everyone hates losing, but I’m walking away with my head held high after these four years.”