As a freshman, Northwest College volleyball player Jessica Ruffing spent most of her court time in the back row, playing wherever then-head coach Shaun Pohlman needed her to play.
Fast-forward a year and Ruffing — one of six sophomores returning for the Lady Trappers this season — finds herself a fixture up front. It’s a place interim head coach Bethany Conde said she’s really beginning to shine.
“She’s one of those girls that will do whatever she has to for the betterment of the team,” Conde said of Ruffing. “At the end of the spring season, we told her front row was going to be a possibility for her, and now she’s one of our strongest, most consistent hitters to start the season. There are times during a game I’ll look over at Coach [Elisa] Vichi and say, ‘Who would have thought?’ A girl that spent all season in the back row last year is one of our top three or four for kills.”
A native of Mountain Home, Idaho, Ruffing started playing volleyball at the age of 12. A fixture on the court for her middle school and high school teams as well as local club teams, the setter fielded several offers coming out of high school before choosing NWC.
“I chose to come here [to NWC] because I had a great visit to the campus,” she said. “I really enjoyed the connection and the girls; they really got along really well. The girls weren’t just a team on the court, they were like a family outside of the gym as well. I liked the idea of coming to a smaller school for academics, also.”
As a pharmacy major, Ruffing said the smaller class sizes enable her to develop stronger relationships with professors.
“Your professors actually care about you more than just as another person taking up a seat,” she said. “It’s the same on the volleyball court as well — you have a more personal relationship with your coach, which I really like.”
Her plans for after Northwest College are still up in the air, though she’s entertaining the idea of continuing her playing career at a four-year school.
“I’ve considered playing on, D-I or D-II, and NWC is a really good transition for that as well, if I do want to take that path,” she said.
With the resignation of Pohlman following the 2017 season, the volleyball program faced the difficult transition of bringing in a new coach while trying to retain the freshmen on the team, as well as incoming recruits. For her part, Ruffing said she never really considered transferring to another school.
“The sophomores on this team are really close, so we all decided to stay for each other,” she said. “We were like, ‘It will be a transition, it will be an adjustment, it might be hard. But we’re going to stay here for each other and push through the season, make the best of it.’ We had a few freshmen leave, but the core of us decided to stay for each other and make the most of it.”
Conde, for her part, said she’s glad Ruffing and the rest of the sophomores chose to return.
“She’s a very positive, bubbly-type person, and just a good teammate,” Conde said of Ruffing. “When you can find girls that are strong on and off the court, that’s such a huge plus.”
Ruffing added that her NWC experience has been “a great one” — on and off the volleyball court.
“The team has always gotten along really well, we’re all really good friends,” she explained. “The academic side has also been great. The classes are fun, and with a small campus, you get to know a lot of people. I feel really supported here; everyone around me is trying to help me do my best.”
Conde praised Ruffing’s leadership and her willingness to help her teammates, as well as to do whatever is asked of her.
“She [Ruffing] is one of those players that every coach would love to have,” Conde said. “She always works hard, and she’s a great teammate, on and off the court. She pushes the team; she’s very vocal. I would take 100 of her. She brings a lot to the team.”
Expectations for the season are being kept realistic, according to Ruffing, as the team adjusts to a new coach and a new style of play. There’s an even mix of freshmen and sophomores on the roster, and at times the line becomes a bit blurry as to which coaching style to adhere to.
“There is kind of a gray line between, ‘Do we do what Pohlman wanted us to do,’ that sort of thing,” Ruffing said. “But I think we’re just trying to start building a program again — be competitive, lay that foundation of what’s expected, really all come together as a team.”
As for Conde, Ruffing said the new coach has a handle on what the team needs to do to be successful, and she’s enjoying the transition.
“She [Conde] is definitely laying the expectations out, letting us know what’s to be expected of the program,” Ruffing said. “She’s trying to get a new foundation in motion. She’s taking control, getting us in shape and working us really hard. She’s really preparing us for the season.”
The Lady Trappers started the season 1-3, and continue to improve with every match. Ruffing and her teammates are learning to play together as a team, with everyone willing to play where the team needs them the most.
“We’re all definitely trying to be really flexible when it comes to positions this year,” she said. “We all want to be ready to play wherever we’re needed for the team.”
Ruffing and her fellow sophomores have embraced their roles as leaders on the team, according to Conde, making the coaching transition that much easier. That said, Ruffing can at times be her harshest critic.
“She does put a lot of pressure on herself, because she knows everybody looks up to her,” Conde said. “She knows her role, and when she feels that she hasn’t met that expectation she has set for herself, she takes it personally. Even when the team is successful, she’s thinking about what more she could have done.”
When the dust finally settles on the 2018 season and she graduates in the spring, Ruffing said she’ll miss her teammates the most. She said the sophomores are “literally inseparable,” and she hopes to build that kind of connection with her freshmen teammates, as well.
“We do everything together, so I’m really going to miss them,” Ruffing said. “And if I go to a bigger school, I’m really going to miss the small community [at NWC]. Knowing everyone on campus and knowing all the other athletes, I’ll definitely miss that, as well.”