Westminster High sophomore Jilienne Widener seems acutely focused and effective in everything she does.
Widener carries a weighted 4.35 grade-point average and said she knows exactly what she wants for a career — physical therapy.
“When I was younger, my mom had to go to physical therapy for something and I used to go to the office with her and do all of the exercises she had to do,” Widener said. “I thought it was really cool.”
If Widener’s achievements on the volleyball court are any indication of what kind of physical therapist she'll be, a successful career is virtually assured.
After all, the Times Volleyball Player of the Year — for a second straight season — led the Owls to county and regional titles, and their first state championship match in school history.
Widener posted 19 kills against Towson in the state semifinal, which Westminster won with ease. The Owls’ outside hitter totaled 15 kills in a three-set loss to Northern-Calvert at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum in the title match, and she racked up eye-catching statistics throughout the season. That prompted recruiting efforts from top-notch collegiate programs such as Florida, South Carolina, LSU, Georgia Tech, and Long Beach State.
“It was dominant for sure,” Westminster coach Ed Benish said of Widener’s season. “She really took over a few matches and our team rallied around her. She is probably a once-in-a-lifetime player as far as being a sophomore and being as dominant as she is.
“She is a rarity in the volleyball community,” he added. “You just don’t see 6-footers with the amount of ball control she has as far as passing. Normally, your tall players, your hitters, stand in the front row and don’t do too much. She is a special player.”
Widener improved her statistics in several categories from her freshman to her sophomore year, but said the biggest difference was her maturity on the court. She said she often nervous last year.
“I feel I keep my composure a lot better,” Widener said. “And I have matured a lot more. I was able to stay calm in tough situations and lead the team to success. Before, I acted like a teenager. I was young and immature. I would let things get in my head and stay focused on the last play instead of moving on to the next play.”
Widener did something few high school students do as a sophomore: she served as a team co-captain.
The 15-year-old took on that role because of her maturity, her coaches say, and her leadership contributions meant as much to the team as the statistics she complied.
Westminster’s other captains were senior outside hitter Sarah O’Donnell and junior setter Emily Bartlett.
“Everybody sees her skills and making plays on the court, but her biggest growth this year was as a leader,” Owls assistant coach Hope Ferguson said. “She recognized the team looked up to her so she would give pointers and advice to the players. She really stepped up as a leader this year.”
And with her play on the court, it’s not a stretch to say she intimidated some opponents.
Widener led the team in kills (362), ranked second in aces (59), and was third in digs (153). She averaged 5.7 kills per set this season, and has a whopping 654 in her career.
Widener was particularly effective in the playoffs — she had 14 kills in a sectional semifinal playoff win over Manchester Valley, then posted 24 kills and 13 digs in the section final win over Magruder.
“It’s very difficult for a team to figure out where she is going with the ball,” Ferguson said. “She is outstanding at finding open spaces. You can read line of approach, she changes it and she will go to an area no one expects her to.”
Widener is very dedicated to the sport, playing it year round. She hones her skills for the Metro Volleyball Club, based in Washington D.C., when she’s not competing for Westminster.
It’s been more important for her to participate in the Team USA High Performance Training Program. She’s competed in week-long tournaments in New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale twice over the past three summers.
“She’s competing with the best players in the country in her age group,” Benish said. “Every year, there are less players that make the cut. It’s called the Olympic pipeline. If you stay in this program through college, you have a chance to make the Olympic roster. It’s a long journey.”
Widener plans to commit to a college next summer, and she would sign a National Letter of Intent as a senior. Missouri, Florida, and South Carolina top her list.
And Widener said academics, and any future career plans, are just important as playing volleyball.
“I am definitely interested in Missouri,” Widener said. “They have what I want to major in. I want to play volleyball as long as I can, but I realize I have to get a job.”