Jamestown's Kelly Esch commits to LSU

The Virginia Gazette

— Last year, Kelly Esch emerged as the go-to weapon for Jamestown High's volleyball program.

The rising senior's performance didn't go unnoticed as she announced Tuesday that she had committed to play Division I volleyball at Louisiana State University as a committed walk-on.

"Playing in college has always been one of the biggest goals I have wanted to achieve," said Esch in an interview Tuesday. "It was a far-fetched dream when I first began playing in third grade, but with all the amazing coaches I've had throughout club (season) and (at) Jamestown with Coach Stephenson, as well as all my fantastic teammates I have been able to reach my goal."

The 2012 Virginia Gazette Volleyball Player of the Year, Esch turned in the best season of her career last fall. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter led the team with 367 kills and 50 blocks en route to earn Bay Rivers District, Region I and Group AA state honors.

Much more than a front-row player, Esch showed vast improvement in all facets of her game. Defensively, she posted 317 digs and very rarely left the court. Offensively, she was one of the team's top point producers, including 68 aces.

Esch said she had offers from several schools, including Iona College and George Mason University before choosing to go to Baton Rouge. She plans to major in criminal justice.

"I chose LSU because when I went down for an unofficial visit, it felt like a natural fit," she said. "The coaches and players made me feel right at home and after being shown around, I knew LSU was the place I need to be."

A four-year starter at Jamestown, Esch has been to back-to-back state tournaments and is eager to start her senior year. "My goals are to be a balanced student athlete — putting equal focus into volleyball as well as academics," she said. "I want to improve my skills and become a well-rounded player."

Tom Stephenson, who has coached Esch at both Jamestown High and with the Williamsburg Volleyball Club, said her commitment is a product of a lot of hard work.

"One of the things that make Kelly so special is her ability to see the court," said Stephenson in an interview Wednesday. "Kelly is a very capable of overpowering you, but her ability to use her vision to see the open spots on the court makes her extremely difficult to defend. At the next level, where the block she will face is much larger and quicker, her ability to quickly see openings and take advantage of those separate her from many other players."

Stephenson said he's coached Esch since she was in the eighth grade and realized early on that she had the intangibles to be a special player. "I've felt since the minute she walked on the volleyball court that she had the potential to play D-1 volleyball," he said. "I remember when she was an eighth grader, she came with her dad to pick up her sister, Natalie, from varsity tryouts and her dad was tossing her balls and in her bare feet, she was elevating and hitting the ball harder than some of my varsity players. I had a feeling right then, that she could be something special."

Esch joins former Jamestown standouts Casey Wyatt (North Carolina State) and Krista Hughes (East Tennessee State) as players to earn a spot with a Division I program. "It means so much to be one of three to reach D-1 athletics," she said. "I couldn't have gotten there without the coaching and support of all my coaches and teammates. It's the best feeling in the world."

Stephenson agrees. "As good as Kelly is right now, she still has great potential to become even better," he said. "She's driven to be on the court and contribute to the success of any team that she is associated with. She make a great teammate and is the type of quality person any college would want to represent them."

Esch credits all of the coaches that she's had over the years, both at the high school level and through the Williamsburg Volleyball Club. Coaches like Sam Krehel, Becky Stowers, Greg Koon, Bobby Sanders, Keith Nowadly, Lee Thornhill and of course, Stephenson have all made an impact.

With her college decision made, Esch is now looking forward to focusing on her final year of high school.

"It was important to me to make a decision, but I wanted to make sure I knew it was the right school for me," she said. "It absolutely takes pressure off. I can focus on improving my skills as well as succeeding academically. My goals are to have a great high school volleyball season and club season, but also keep focused on school work and to enjoy my senior year."

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