STAUNTON – Quick, name a famous Jethro.
There’s Jethro Bodine, known for his ciphering abilities in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And sure, we can’t forget the rock band Jethro Tull. On the television show “NCIS” there’s special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
Now add to that very short list Jethro Williams.
Haven’t heard of that particular Jethro? Maybe she’d be more familiar to you as Jennifer Williams, Robert E. Lee’s junior middle hitter. But to her teammates she’s Jethro, thanks to a former teammate who christened her with the nickname a couple of years ago.
“Then it got shortened to Jeth, not to be confused with Jeff,” Williams said. “Then someone called me Genevieve. And Jenny. I just go by whatever people call me.”
Most opponents just call her trouble. The News Leader’s 2016 All-City/County Player of the Year was dominant on the volleyball court this year, leading her team to the Group 2A state championship game. Williams finished the year with the most kills of any area player, 430, while adding 139 blocks, 342 digs and 44 aces. She had seven matches with 20 or more kills, including a pair in the regional playoffs.
And if that’s too many numbers for you, just boil it down to this: Jethro Williams is a freakishly good volleyball player.
“She will find any way to get a kill, so it’s difficult to know where she will hit it and to be able to pass it up,” said Wilson Memorial’s Hannah Johnson.
At this year’s state championship match, Williams was singled out by the opposing coach as the athlete her team needed to stop if it was to win. Lee freshman Nellie Garrison said Williams always knows the correct spot to place the ball when she attacks. Her sister, and Riverheads varsity assistant coach, Tori Williams loves the killer instinct part of her game.
“She gets back quick and goes in hard,” said Jan Williams, both her high school coach and mom. “That’s why she can have such a powerful hit and quick hit that people can’t block as easily.”
But when you talk to Jennifer Williams, she is more than happy to point out her flaws. Actually she likes to laugh at them. As we sat talking at Lee High one afternoon last week, Williams pulled out her phone and started showing me videos of her most embarrassing moments on the volleyball court.
“Oh my gosh, there’s this really funny video of me tripping over my feet,” said Williams, who then showed me the video which she had shared on Twitter.
There’s another video showing her rolling her ankle against Spotswood, again stepping on her own foot before falling to the ground. The very next play, Williams made a tremendous defensive effort diving to save a ball. That’s not on video because her dad was too busy replaying and laughing at the video of her falling down.
And then, a couple of weeks ago as I was walking out of practice with her, Williams asked if I had seen the video of her busting her lip. She told me to go to her Twitter and watch it. She was diving for a ball against Bruton in the regional semifinals and face-planted. There was lots of blood, enough that she had to leave the game and go to the locker room to clean up. It hurt physically, but her pride wasn’t harmed in the least. She couldn’t wait to share the video on social media.
“People ask me if I’m embarrassed by that kind of stuff,” Williams said. “I share everything…I’m not embarrassed by it. I think it’s funny too. I make fun of myself all the time.”
That is part of why Williams is so charming. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. But don’t confuse that with how she approaches her sport. Williams is a student of the game, which translates to her play on the court.
“She can see the court, she can see where there are holes, she can see what people are doing,” said Lee coach Jan Williams. “Knowledge goes a long, long way in volleyball. She has watched enough volleyball that she has picked up from other people and she’s learned the whole process of the game.”
The Williams family is a volleyball family. Jan Williams was a left-side hitter at East Tennessee State University. Both sisters, Tori and Maria, played volleyball at Lee High. Now Jennifer has followed in their footsteps, although she has surpassed them in one category – height. Mom and sisters all have to look up to the 6-foot-1 Lee junior.
When Tori Williams went away to college, Jennifer, who is six years younger, came up to her shoulder. When Tori returned home during break it was tough to determine who was taller. Now, there’s no question. Earlier this month, when Tori couldn’t find her sister, she tweeted, “Standing in TJ Maxx wondering how I lost a literal giant.”
Tori knew her sister would be a special volleyball player from an early age. When Tori was a junior at Lee, she would be warming up before a match and a 10-year-old Jennifer was digging up her older sister’s hits. She was already taller than anyone else in her class.
Williams has been playing since middle school, joining her first Junior Olympic team in sixth grade. Now, she plays for Valley Juniors, a high-level travel program, once the high school season ends. And when she’s not playing, she’s at volleyball camps or watching volleyball on television.
And it’s not just her playing skills that make her a good player. Part of it is interacting with teammates. Wilson’s Johnson has seen that side of her also, playing with Williams during past travel seasons. She always found Williams to be a positive influence on the court, which can sometimes be as much of a benefit to a team as her play.
Garrison saw that side of Williams this past season.
“After my kills she’ll be, like, a little more excited about it than I am,” Garrison said. “She is super positive.”
Williams has a goal of playing volleyball in college, but she still has one more high school season remaining. She hopes that the experience her team gathered this season will translate into a repeat trip to the state tournament next year and, possibly this time, a state title. Lee loses two seniors, Amber Johnson and Meghan Wood, and Williams knows they won’t be easy to replace, but she’s looking forward to May when Lee starts preparing for next season.
“I think it will be a very close group again,” she said. “And I’m very excited about that.”
One person who is almost as excited about Jennifer’s future is her sister. Working with the Riverheads team, Tori Williams didn’t get to watch Jennifer as much as she wanted this season, but when the playoffs came around she tried to see all of Lee’s matches. She calls herself Jennifer’s number-one fan.
“I’m just so proud of everything she’s doing,” Tori said. “It’s cool to see that.”