Oct. 14, 2010
By Larry Watts
There was a time in her life when Jessica Granquist thought about becoming a concert pianist. In fact, she is actually one of the few non-music majors at the University of Minnesota to have a piano in her apartment.
"I have been playing since I was in kindergarten," the Blaine, Minn. junior says. "My great aunt was a concert pianist and she taught me the ropes. I was really inspired by how good she was. I thought it would be so cool to play in concerts or malls with everyone passing about."
But an aspiring career of tickling the ivory keys gradually fell on the back burner as her interest in another field grew stronger. Now she is hitting all the right notes for the nationally-ranked Golden Gophers volleyball team, where she is following in a line of great liberos.
Since the Big Ten started recognizing a defensive player of the year in 2001, the Gophers have walked off with the honor five times. Paula Gentil won the award three times (2002-04) while Malama Peniata (2006) and Christine Tan (2008) each claimed the prize once.
"I don't get a chance to play the piano too often now because of my involvement in volleyball," says Granquist, who lists "Amazing Grace" as her favorite piece to play. "I might sit down at night when I'm trying to relax or just getting back from a tournament. It always helps stabilize my mood. I'm decent, but I'm more of a sheet reader than doing it through memorization."
During her first two seasons at Minnesota, the 5-foot-8 Granquist logged nearly all of her playing time as a defensive specialist while studying under Tan. She was third on the team in digs as a freshman and third in the Big Ten as a sophomore. With a Big Ten-leading 5.14 digs per game this fall, she is well on her way to bringing the conference's top defensive honor back to Minnesota for a sixth time.
"I basically learned from Christine (Tan) to go for everything and any ball is hittable," she says. "She was a very motivational player and taught me to work as hard as I can every day."
Granquist admits her first love in sports was soccer, but that started to change through the influence of her mother, who was a former volleyball player and coach, and preservation of her knees.
"I played soccer through eighth grade, but I was having too many knee injuries because I am so aggressive," she says with a laugh. "When it comes to contact sports, I don't hold back. Volleyball just became more fun because I was playing at a higher competitive level. Every now and then I'll still try to hit the volleyball with my feet."
An outside hitter while playing all four years on the varsity at Blaine High School, she helped lead her team to third in the state as a junior and was named first-team all-state as a senior. She also competed in track as a freshman and senior, concentrating on the short sprints, long jump and high jump.
"Shin splints and knee problems kept me out of track for two years," she says. "But I was more focused on volleyball and mainly did track as a social thing so I could hang out with people."
The transition to libero began while playing Junior Olympic ball as a junior. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to size up with everyone at the Division I level and I really liked playing defense, so I made the move," she says. "Not being able to play the full rotation and put balls away was a change, but I saw a new light in defense. I was now competing in a different manner and it made me respect the game more."
Until Minnesota came calling in the spring of her junior year, Granquist had been looking at Florida State, North Dakota State and Mankato State. But the offer from Minnesota, a 15-minute drive from home, was too good to pass up. Both her brother and sister are undergrads at Minnesota.
"It was amazing when Minnesota came to recruit me," Granquist says. "I try to make it home once a week. I can get a dinner and do my laundry."
Granquist says several members of her family have attended Minnesota, but the most notable is her cousin, basketball hall of famer Kevin McHale.
"It's not something I go around boasting about because I wasn't even born when he last played here (1980)," she says. "I've seen film of him and it's pretty cool that he went here, but he did his thing and I'm doing mine now."
The role of the libero carries certain leadership responsibilities with it. But Granquist's first year on the job has already taken a significant upgrade when outside hitter Hailey Cowles and middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer, the lone seniors on the squad, were lost to injuries. Cowles is out for the season with a torn ACL and Gibbemeyer has been sidelined by a wrist injury for the past three weeks.
"It's been a real maturity factor for the entire team," Granquist says. "Not only has it put a lot more responsibility on my shoulders as one of the older players to step up and lead, but the younger ones have been forced to grow up quickly.
"We're definitely at a disadvantage with Hailey and Lauren and would love to have them on the court, but I think we are working the best we can. There are several new girls in the lineup now and I see it as my responsibility to get everyone in the best position possible to succeed. I'm usually the first person to touch the ball, so I get upset with myself if I'm not making them better. It's not that I am a perfectionist; I just enjoy pleasing people and making everyone around me better."
According to Granquist, she has thrived on her growth at Minnesota. "Balancing everything with school, volleyball and life has been a great challenge, but I love challenges and I challenge myself to get better in all aspects every day," she says. "I know I can still get better and getting to the gym every day presents me with a great opportunity to learn because I know I am being offered the skills and opinions from a coaching staff that will help me get better."
Granquist would jump at the opportunity to continue playing volleyball once her career at Minnesota is over. "Anywhere," she says. "Whatever is offered to me I would take it. I'm keeping it open because I love challenges."
A marketing major who is now exploring a double major in entrepreneurship, Granquist would love the opportunity to play in Milan, Italy, where she could also study the fashion industry.
"Milan is the high-end fashion center of the world and I love the fashion industry," she says. "All the newest trends start in Milan. I consider myself creative and I can be a little unique."