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Jilienne Widener proves a big hit with No. 1 Westminster volleyball

Westminster's Jilienne Widener playing against South River, in the Mason-Dixon Invitational volleyball tournament in Westminster.
Westminster's Jilienne Widener playing against South River, in the Mason-Dixon Invitational volleyball tournament in Westminster. (Bill Ryan/ For Carroll County Ti / Carroll County Times)

Westminster volleyball star Jilienne Widener was in a sudden panic during the No. 1 Owls home match against Manchester Valley earlier this season.

All eyes were on her, nothing new for the three-time Carroll County Times Player of the Year, but the 6-foot senior outside hitter wasn’t slamming down another kill, hitting the floor for a dig or anything else the team needed to help bring home another win.

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Wait. Widener rattled on the volleyball court? Not a chance.

Well, maybe this one time for good reason — actually 1,000.

“They stopped the game and gave me the game ball and told me to go give it to my parents,” said Widener, who was honored for reaching 1,000 career kills during the match on Sept. 12. “I was running to the stands and had no idea where my parents were sitting. So I’m like: ‘Where my parents? Where my parents?’ My mom was up at the top and my dad was standing right there in front of me with the video camera. … I was so embarrassed because everybody was watching me go through that.”

After a quick hug, the 17-year-old Widener, also a three-time All-Metro selection, found her usual form to finish with 20 kills and nine digs as the Owls swept the Mavericks in three games.

For Westminster first-year coach Evan Frock, who was the team’s assistant coach the previous two seasons, Widener’s sensational performance that night has long been the norm.

Westminster's Jilienne Widener is a three-time player of the year in Carroll County.
Westminster's Jilienne Widener is a three-time player of the year in Carroll County. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

“She is the most dominant player I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And it’s not just her hitting, but also her serve receive, her passing, her setting, her blocking, her serving — it’s a complete game.”

Proof has come in the No. 1 Owls perfect 14-0 regular season. In 44 sets, they only dropped two with 12 3-0 sweeps, Widener has 235 kills, 96 digs, 53 aces and 17 blocks.

The across-the-board efficiency she produces has been around for four years, leading the Owls to two region championships, an appearance in the state title match in her sophomore year and the semifinals last season.

And while it has become expected, it’s no less appreciated.

The Owls want more this postseason in a bid to bring home the program’s first state championship. Earning a bye in the opening round of the Class 3A East playoffs, they’ll begin their quest in Monday’s semifinal round. They know Widener, who now has 1,210 career kills, will be primed.

“She’s just a great teammate,” said senior libero Kacey Thomas. “She definitely pushes everybody the hardest in every front because it’s just kill, kill, kill and that makes you dig better, makes you block better, makes you set better all because of her. It’s just everything.”

Volleyball was a no-brainer for Widener.

The earliest indication appears in an old photo that shows her reaching for a volleyball as a toddler, a birthday present she never let go of.

Her grandmother, Oralee Smith, founded the Carroll Viper Volleyball Club in 1996, which Widener had been a part of since she was 7 years old before moving on to D.C.-based Metro Volleyball Club during her freshman year.

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Her mother, Stacey Smith Widener, also was a standout volleyball player at Westminster.

And her older sister, Camryn, was a senior when she was a freshman, so they savored playing together for one season at Westminster.

“Volleyball has given me something to look forward to every single day,” Widener said. “I think it’s really helped shape my whole character in general. I’m a hard worker, I’m driven and passionate about the sport and I want to be the best I can be, so I love it.”

Widener started out as a setter, helping her develop a complete understanding of the game, before a 6-inch growth spurt during middle school moved her to hitter.

It was around then that former Westminster coach Ed Benish recognized a special player would joining the program.

When she was in seventh grade, the Viper under-17 team was short of players for a weekend tournament and didn’t hesitate to ask Widener, then 13, to play. Not only did she fill in admirably, she’s stood out.

In the three years Benish coached her at Westminster — he stepped down after last season to return to college — he never saw her give anything less than 100% in a match or practice.

“Her drive and her grittiness and her willingness — she does not like to lose or to fail and she always looks for an opportunity to bounce back,” he said. “I think that was so evident even when she was in seventh and eighth grade watching her in club. It’s not that she never makes mistakes, but when she does make them or has adversity, she’s always looking for an opportunity right away to fix it.”

While Widener’s ability to do so many things well helps set her apart, her precise and powerful hitting speaks the loudest.

From her footwork to her vertical to the snap off her hand, she has it down to an exact science.

Westminster's Jilienne Widener, left, and Tatum Keck slap hads with teammates following their win over Winters Mill in Westminster Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.
Westminster's Jilienne Widener, left, and Tatum Keck slap hads with teammates following their win over Winters Mill in Westminster Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

This season, she’s averaging 5.34 kills per set with a kill percentage of .504 (235 kills, 39 errors).

“She’s a terminator with a capital T,” said Atholton coach Larry Schofield, whose Raiders beat the Owls in last year’s Class 3A semifinals before claiming the title. “You set her the ball and she’s going to put it down. She’s got that attitude ‘I’m going to end it now.’”

“I jokingly say: ‘If she’s on the bench, I’d still set her because she’s going to get a kill.’ She’s that good and that dominant.”

Earlier this season, Schofield had his team at Westminster’s Mason-Dixon Invitational — the host Owls won the gold bracket — and he noticed something about Widener that stood out just as much as her kills.

“I think her smile is also as big as her hits,” he said. “She’s having fun out there and that is as big a team builder than anything. When she gets a kill, she’s excited and that pumps the team up and they went to get at it again.”

Widener, who maintains a weighted 4.3 grade-point average, said the best day of her life came last December when she told her family she committed to Brown.

She’s banking on a similarly special day come November as the Owls look to return to Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum to bring home that first state title. They’ve been close, have the big-game experience and a close-knit team is determined to make it happen.

“We’re definitely hungry to go back on that big stage,” Widener said. “We know how hard we have to work every day at practice and what we have to do to get there. We take it one day at a time, one game at a time. Yeah, we’re so hungry to get back there.”

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