BRAINERD — Simply put Jenna Pelnis keeps volleyballs from hitting the floor.
That’s the way the freshman defensive specialist for the NJCAA Division III’s fourth-ranked Central Lakes College Raiders volleyball team puts it.
But talk to her about her role a bit more in-depth and one realizes it’s a more difficult thing to do than to say.
“It’s a hard thing to do and every team is different so during warm-ups when you’re watching the other team you kind of have to pinpoint those big hitters and see what they can do and what different shots they have and keep that in mind during the game,” Pelnis said. “It’s a hard job to do. I’m not going to lie.
“I can pick up on what the other team is trying to do pretty quickly. For example, if an outside (hitter) keeps getting points going line then I try to see that right away and tell the blockers and help my teammates to see it too. Then I’ll try and take a couple of steps toward the line just because I know that’s what they’re trying to do.”
Pelnis didn’t develop these skills overnight. The Howard Lake-Waverly graduate started playing volleyball when she was in sixth grade. She fell in love with it so much she quit gymnastics and softball so she could play volleyball year round. She joined the Northern Lights Junior Olympic team out of Burnsville and played for them for five years. She traveled to Europe, Florida, Colorado and other places to compete.
During that time she was also a five-year varsity player for Howard Lake.
“The fact that you have to work with other teammates and work toward one specific goal, obviously to win,” Pelnis said about what she fell in love with. “It’s super fun competing against other people and meeting new people during the process. Just being on a team everyone has to put in the effort. It’s not just one person. Everybody has to put in the work for it to be successful and it’s a super good feeling when that happens.”
She was going to attend Presbyterian College in South Carolina, but decided to start her college career at CLC.
“It is difficult coming into a brand new setting and not knowing anybody,” Pelnis said. “It was nerve-wracking, but one thing I was super impressed with here at CLC is how fast our team clicked. That’s not really common for a team to click that fast which I found super impressive. One unique thing about our team is that we never give up and we have a positive mindset which makes it easier for all of us to work together toward that one goal.”
At CLC, I obviously came here as a freshman, but I feel like I do have a leadership role in the back row.
CLC often opens its season with a road trip to Rockford, Illinois. One reason is to play top-level opponents. The other reason is to build a strong team bond while traveling on the bus and staying in the hotel rooms. Pelnis said that trip was extremely important for the team’s confidence, too.
“The Owens game really showed us who we were,” Pelnis said. “We lost a couple of games before that and knowing we were going to play this super great team that had won nationals the last two years was kind of scary. But we went out there knowing who we were and we fought and we helped each other through it and we ended up beating them which was super important. It just made us excited to know that we can compete against these big huge teams throughout the season.”
Prior to the Friday, Sept. 23, game against Vermilion, the Raiders were 6-0 in the Northern Division and 10-4 overall having just split four games at the North Dakota State College of Science Tournament.
The Raiders won those six division games 18-1. They suffered their first divisional set loss Wednesday at Alexandria Tech.
“At CLC, I obviously came here as a freshman, but I feel like I do have a leadership role in the back row,” Pelnis said. “I try to uplift my teammates the best that I can and bring positive energy on and off the court. I always come into practice with a positive mindset and just try to help my teammates and be the best that I can be.”
She added she also enjoys giving her teammates insight into what the defense is trying to do to stop her hitters.
“I’m pretty good at it, just from the background that I have and because of how long I’ve been playing volleyball for,” Pelnis said. “I feel like I’ve got a higher IQ in volleyball. I’d say I’m pretty good at it and I try to help my teammates look for those spots if they’re struggling.”
Pelnis has been around, and a part of, good teams and she believes this year’s Raiders team is very good.
CLC fans and volleyball fans will get a number of chances to see if she’s right. CLC hosts Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College noon Saturday, Sept. 24. The Raiders will then play Lake Region State College at 3 pm
CLC will then host Northland Community and Technical College 6:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 28, Hibbing 6:30 pm Friday, Sept. 30. The six-game homestand concludes with Rainy River noon Saturday, Oct. 1.
For those wanting to really get into the flow of the game, watch Pelnis and see how she handles the first few serves.
“Obviously, volleyball starts with the serve and that’s kind of when I know, if I make a few good passes early, I know I’m going to have good touches on the ball that game. It clicks in my head and I just have confidence in myself. I trust my training and keep working hard and have energy.”
And remember Pelnis’ job isn’t easy. She’ll make a few mistakes, but like she says she’s got good teammates to back her up.
“It is difficult to react that fast,” Pelnis said. “When the ball is coming at you that fast you have very little time. It’s mostly about where you are on the court. You have to know what’s happening on the other side and get into the right spot before the ball comes back over to your side. Seeing what is happening before it happens and being in that perfect spot while reading where the block is at and trying to get in the holes. Then when it does come fast you have to just try and react, get the best touch you can and try and get it to the best spot you can.”
Pelnis has played in all 14 matches and 48 of the 50 sets. She leads the team with 214 digs, which is 100 more than the next closest teammate. She’s added 11 ace serves, 15 set assists and she even has three kills.
Despite the difficult nature of her job, Pelnis wouldn’t change it for anything. Growing up she wanted to be taller and play the front row. She wanted to get all the kills and the recognition that comes with it.
“I was sad that I couldn’t play front row because that’s who earns the point,” said Pelnis who stands 5-foot-3. “Usually nobody really recognizes the passers but that’s where it all starts. If you don’t have a good pass then you can’t get a set and you can’t get a hit. I really just learned that it starts with the pass and I’m helping my teammates earn the points. It’s not just one person earning the points.
“I do love what I do. I’d be fine if I was a hitter, but I love what I do and I love getting better at it every day in practice.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.