Jones starred on 1982 Jasper volleyball teamJune 2, 2020
BY COREY STOLZENBACH
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Those words are attributed to famed writer Will Durant, and one person who has made excellence a habit in her life: 1983 Jasper graduate Jill (Ackerman) Jones.
Jones starred on the volleyball court for the Wildcats, helping them to state in 1982 and winning the Mental Attitude Award. Her prep career alone is noteworthy. Legendary Jasper volleyball coach Pat Zehr said during Jones’ senior year that she was the most talented player she ever coached.
But she also went on to excel on the volleyball court for the University of Kentucky as a team captain, a letterwinner all four years and an academic All-American. Jones graduated from the Gatton School of Business and Economics, and excelled for more than 30 years at her craft, making her way up to the executive vice president role at the Brown-Forman Corporation.
Jones is retired now, and is currently a board member for both the First Beverage Group and Breakthru Beverage Group. Her accomplishments in her career earned her a spot in Gatton’s Hall of Fame.
“For the University of Kentucky to look at those accomplishments and put me into the Hall of Fame was really special,” Jones said.
She’s spent much of her life in the Bluegrass State after playing collegiately in Lexington, but Jones has not forgotten the excellence of teaching that Dubois County provides, knowing that many great students and great athletes come from the area. She would know, since she was one of them.
Jones began playing volleyball in eighth grade, when the sport wasn’t as advanced as it is now. But her time with it before she got to high school jumpstarted a lifelong passion of hers.
“From the minute I went on the court, I just loved it, just loved it,” she said.
She joined the varsity team with the Wildcats when she was a sophomore. Jones helped Jasper garner the volleyball-rich tradition it enjoys today when she helped the Wildcats win sectional championships all three years she was on varsity in 1980, 1981 and 1982, and she got to experience her first one with her older sister, Laura Grammer.
The 1980 Wildcats weren’t the most experienced team, but they found their way, and when it came time for sectional, they took care of business. Jasper clinched a second straight championship with a 2-0 win against a Pike Central team that finished that year 18-7.
“Pat always instilled a belief that you were going to win,” Jill said. “She had us prepared, and the teams tended to work well together, and you just always thought you could, and I think she managed to keep nerves in check. And when you get into the state tournament run, that can make a really big difference.
“So, if you have a team playing together, that believes in themselves and the coach believes you’re going to win, I think sometimes you will yourself to win,” she continued.
Going further wasn’t meant to be that season, as Jasper lost to Evansville Mater Dei in the regional tournament, but big things were in store for the Wildcats, with Jill playing a key part in Jasper’s triumphs the next two years.
The Wildcats went 22-0 in the regular season during her junior year in 1981. It was the team’s first-ever undefeated season, as well as their first-ever Big 8 Conference championship. They were ranked No. 3 in an era before class sports.
“Of course, state would’ve been a goal, and winning state would’ve been the goal, but there’s always good teams along the way, and we only looked one weekend ahead,” Jill said. “In your heart, you’re hoping, ‘Gosh, we’re really good. We hope we make it to state,’ but there’s other teams along the way.”
Jill knew it wasn’t a given, and Jasper met another team that has a storied volleyball history in Castle in the regional semifinals. The Wildcats bested the Knights in the regular season that year, but this time, Castle got its payback, 2-0, upsetting the favored Jasper squad. Jill had five spikes in that semifinal.
“They were very well-coached then, and they were a team that always improved throughout the season,” she said of Castle. “They were well-coached. So, they were going to get better along the way. We were going to get better along the way. They had some tall kids and some good athletes. Ironically, one of their kids (Lisa Dausman) ended up going to the University of Kentucky and was my roommate.”
Jill anticipated the Wildcats and Knights would lock horns in the tournament again during her senior year. She remembers riding on the bus, asking herself how Jasper would exact revenge, what it would do differently to get payback.
She didn’t have to worry about a tournament rematch. Castle got bounced before the two teams could play, and Jill and the Wildcats had noise to make come tournament time.
“My sophomore year, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the upperclassmen,” Jill said. “My junior year, I felt like I was contributing more. But my senior year, I really felt like I had evolved as a player, and the team had evolved, and people were good at the skills they needed. The DS’s were good passers and good at reading. The setters were good at providing a very hittable ball, and I felt like we just had all the pieces and the experience, and that’s my third year. So, by then, I’m feeling confident that I can play with most teams.”
The Wildcats had some adversity to deal with when they got to the regional. Sherry Eisenhut had an emergency appendectomy the week of. Ann Blessinger took over in the setter role at that point, and Caroline Eckerle became a starter. Blessinger had six assists in the 2-0 regional championship win against Sullivan.
Jill talked about how often the team played together and the trust they had in one another. She noted the players tried to learn many skills.
“Ann being able to step in and hold her own, while it’s not the skill she practiced the most, really wasn’t surprising, and the whole team trusted her,” she said. “I think there’s something to be said about the culture Coach Zehr created and the closeness of that team.” She remembers how excited the whole team was that Jasper would have the chance to win the semistate championship on its home floor. Jill told of how proud and excited Zehr was, and the energy radiated throughout the school.
Heartbreak almost ensued, however, in the decisive set of the semistate championship between Jasper and Seymour. The Wildcats looked at holes of 12-2 and 13-5. They went on a run to trim the deficit to 13-12, before Seymour had Jasper on the ropes at 14-12.
However, Jill produced a pair of aces to give the Wildcats the lead, and Shari Bachman’s block sealed a 16-14 win and semistate championship for seventh-ranked Jasper.
“We were telling each other, ‘Stay calm, we’ve got this, we’re gonna come back,’ Jill said. “And I remember looking up in the stands and seeing my mom (Phyllis), and my mom was wringing her hands and it was the funniest feeling. It was watching fans be nervous, in particular my mom, seeing her almost playing the game — cheering, putting so much energy in it; and I remember we were tired.
“It was a hard-fought game, and it was just enough that I felt a little more energy go, ‘Uh-uh, look at these fans, we are going to finish this game and win,’” she continued.
That first state championship in volleyball still eludes Jasper, however. Muncie Burris eliminated the Wildcats earlier in the day in the state tournament, and a win against McCutcheon that night gave the Owls the state championship.
Jill noted how advanced Muncie Burris was. She likened the Owls to a college team, and thought that Muncie Burris squad would beat college teams. The Wildcats were bummed out, but decided to watch the state championship game, and for Jill, remaining there paid off.
“They were giving out the trophies and awards, and then they announced the Mental Attitude Award, and I hadn’t really thought about why we were staying,” Jill said. “They announced my name, and you wished everybody on your team could get an award after losing because you’re so sad your team lost and you didn’t come all the way through, but it’s like a silver lining. It is recognition for all the hard work you put in. Of course, the entire team put in hard work.”
She inked her letter of intent to continue her volleyball career at UK on Feb. 16, 1983. Jill thought she got lucky because club volleyball was just starting back then, and she attended a college showcase in Kentucky, and UK took notice. Jill went from being a Wildcat to being a Wildcat.
It was an adjustment for her. She had to learn a lot of skills, including how to pass. Jill had little experience on how to set, and her teammates gave her drills to do. She had some experience diving after balls, but didn’t know how to dive and roll. This frustrated her coaches. Jill learned how to dive and roll by training on UK’s wrestling mats.
“It was daunting, my freshman year,” she said.
Jill prides herself on hard work and determination, adding it’s a Dubois County trait to give it one’s all. She remembers how hard she worked in the gym. Jill broke out in a big way as an upperclassman, with that confidence she had at Jasper emerging in Lexington when she was a junior. Her hard work her first two years paid off.
As a team captain, she made sure to stay positive with an emphasis on the team and setting a tone of hard work.
“I think I aspired to be a good teammate, setting a good example, asking the team to do what we needed to do to do better and not asking them to do things I wouldn’t,” Jill said.
She’s not the only one in her family who has played volleyball at the NCAA Division I level. Daughter Gwyn Jones played three years at Auburn University (Ala.) from 2016-18, and her last campaign at Marquette (Wis.) in 2019.
Jill wanted her daughter to have a mindset and confidence, but also a full skill set so that Gwyn could play any position on the floor if called to do so, and she worked with her daughter on that.
“She really has a high volleyball IQ,” she said. “She has great court sense, high volleyball IQ and a full tool kit.
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