The Freshman Factor

Freshman Jaysa Funk was still just another backup when the season started for Utah State volleyball, but when the time came to make an impact she was ready. Similarly, fellow freshman Bailey Downing was ready the moment she walked on campus.

There are five freshmen on the volleyball team: true freshmen Downing and Gabbi Shumway, and redshirts Funk, Ashlee Thornock, and Madi Olsen. Ask any of them what it’s like being an underclassman on a team ripe with juniors and seniors — who comprise eight of the 14 spots on the roster — and they’ll respond this is a T-E-A-M, and they are an important part of it.

Funk, a redshirt freshman setter, began the 2017 season as a bench contributor behind junior setter Kassidy Johnson. Johnson went down with an injury early in the season, pushing Funk into starting duties. The first start of her career began the Utah State Invitational against Pacific University on Sep. 1. Prior to the game, she had logged time against Louisiana-Monroe in August, but now, it was her job to “run the offense” as head coach Grayson DuBose trains his setters to do.

Funk answered with a double-double of 46 assists and 15 digs, a start that had “I got this” written all over it. Her role ended up being instrumental in a grind-it-out 3-2 win over the Lady Tigers.

“I think I have a great mentor in Kassidy,” Funk said. “Her getting hurt, it was really sad, that’s really tough, but all of the coaches have told me to go out there and just do my best, and Kassidy’s still always giving me advice, so I just try to take it in and play the best I can.”

The Aggie’s 8-3 streak since Funk came in isn’t without flaw, and Johnson has since returned from injury and reentered the starting lineup, yet the plucky woman averaged 40.2 assists per match in the nine games she started, including a career-high 48 against Southern Utah, where one more dig in that game would have been her fifth double-double.

Being a setter means being a general of the floor, so it isn’t often that the position experiences a great deal of rotation. For Downing, a true freshman middle blocker and native Texan, she gets her shots much more often, and makes the best of them.

Before graduating high school, plenty of universities took a shot at Downing’s recruitment, she said. Being a Latter-day Saint, Downing found appeal in going to a school with a “strong LDS factor”, in addition to a lot of tradition. “Except for the cold weather,” Downing said, “it pretty much had me sold.”

Downing is no stranger to winning. “I come from pretty high-level teams,” Downing said, having played in high-profile volleyball club teams and a perennially strong program at Lovejoy High School in Lucas, Texas. “I have more knowledge of how to be successful because we’ve been successful in the past. I can help Utah State by having that competitiveness and knowing what it takes to win.”

In contrast to Funk’s redshirting experience, Downing is hitting the court from the get-go. “Sitting on the bench is hard for me,” Downing said. “I want to help the team. I’m very competitive.”

Downing shares her time with other members of the team on-court, but still has had her bright moments so far, pulling off a nine-kill performance against San Diego State last week. “I wanted to help the team and be an impact and not just another player,” Downing said.

One theme among coaches and players alike at USU volleyball is there is no hierarchy. DuBose has been coaching the program for 12 years and never ends his effort at recruiting new players at any point in the year. “The goal is to get them here,” DuBose said, “have them learn from the upperclassmen, and have them have some sort impact at some point throughout their careers.”

Downing even admits that she was mentally prepared to be picked on by the juniors and seniors when she got here, but there was no need. “I expected there to be a hierarchy,” Downing said, “but, not at all. I think that’s helped us as a team just to have those relationships. At other schools, I think there is more of a hierarchy, and that can hurt a team.”

“Lauren Anderson is teaching Gabbi [Shumway] how to be a hitter,” Dubose said. “Kayla [DeCoursey]’s teaching guys how to travel. It’s really collaborative. The work in progress is if we can get these guys to buy into a system.”

When seniors like Anderson and DeCoursey are on the court, players on the sidelines are expected to “bring something to the timeout,” Dubose said.

Every player stands to teach and learn, no matter how many years they have suited up for the blue and white.