TOWER- As a teenager growing up in suburban Chicago, Jodi Rogers-Reichensperger admits she wasn’t all that interested in school.“I was a horrible student,” she said. “It was …
TOWER- As a teenager growing up in suburban Chicago, Jodi Rogers-Reichensperger admits she wasn’t all that interested in school.
“I was a horrible student,” she said. “It was not something that ever interested me. College? I never even gave a thought about it.
“Then, volleyball happened.”
Forced by her parents to choose between being grounded for a year or finding an extracurricular activity to be involved in, the reluctant ninth grader chose volleyball. By her senior year she was good enough to join a club team and attract the attention of college recruiters.
“I went to the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and played on a full athletic scholarship for the Gophers,” Jodi said.
She never went back to Chicago, and instead eventually found her way to Tower.
“I never pictured myself in a town of 500, but here I am,” she laughed. “I’ve been here 23 years now, and it’s been an amazing place to raise kids.”
And now one of those kids, Northeast Range junior Hannah Reichensperger, is following in her mother’s footsteps. A standout on her school and club teams, Hannah recently made a verbal commitment to play volleyball for Illinois State University.
But while Jodi likes to look at this as a sort of full circle situation, an Illinois girl coming to Minnesota to play college volleyball whose Minnesota daughter will be going to Illinois, their stories of how they got there are vastly dissimilar.
While Jodi was coerced to play volleyball, Hannah was literally born to it.
“Hannah was born in 2003, and her first volleyball experience was probably in utero,” Jodi chuckled.
Jodi was coaching the Tower-Soudan volleyball team at the time, and Hannah was along for the ride, arriving during the season. The entire team visited Jodi and Hannah in the hospital the day after Hannah was born, and it wasn’t long before they saw them again.
“She was born on a Thursday and we had a game on the following Monday,” Jodi said. “That Monday I was sitting in the stands with my four-day-old child.”
Hannah was of course too young to remember that, but she only needs to traipse over to Tower-Soudan Elementary for a reminder, a team picture of smiling volleyball players with a baby in the middle.
Hannah accompanied Jodi to practices, and her earliest memories of volleyball don’t involve the ball.
“I have very vivid memories of me laying on the stage in the gym as the girls are running their warm up laps and me giving them high fives,” she said. “And then eating powdered doughnut holes on the bus.”
The ball entered the picture when she was around four or five years old.
“I remember sitting on the bleachers, with my butt right on the edge, in almost perfect passing form with my arms out and my mom just tossing me balls and me sitting there passing and passing and passing,” Hannah said.
From that point on, volleyball was just a regular part of Hannah’s life.
“I’ve never felt pressured to play volleyball,” she said. “I just grew up with it and loved watching it and learning what all of my mom’s players were learning. And then in fifth grade, I started playing for our little elementary squad.”
When the high school moved out of Tower, Jodi moved on to Northeast Range in Babbitt to teach and coach, and that’s where Hannah went to school, too. As a seventh-grader, she quickly let everyone see that there was already something special about her game when Jodi had her fill in at the last minute for an injured high school varsity player.
“I can’t remember if we won or lost, but I know we went five games,” Jodi said. “She was only allowed to play in three sets that match, but she led the team in kills and blocks.”
Seventh grade was also the year Hannah tried out for Minnesota North, an offseason club team based in Duluth.
“She made the 13-1 team, which is the thirteen [year-old] national team,” Jodi said. “I think that was her first taste of ‘Holy cow, this is awesome!”
“It was just another level of play that I hadn’t seen before,” Hannah said. “I was with girls who were also committed to the game and loved it and were really good at it. I guess I’ve always been very competitive and that is the level where I found the competition.”
As a sixth-grader Hannah played with a seventh-grade club team in Virginia, and again over her years with Minnesota North she’s skipped a level to play with more advanced players. Jodi has also been coaching for Minnesota North, and mother and daughter have helped each other with the transition back-and-forth between the high-powered, high-skill level of club ball and the more varied talents of high school volleyball.
And while Hannah has come to appreciate her talents, she’s quick to acknowledge that they’re a combination of some natural ability and hard work.
“I did have skills naturally, like reading and blocking and passing,” she said. “But I’ve played club for four years now and I’ve worked four years straight at improving everything that I already have.”
This past year Hannah signed up with an online recruitment service where she posted videos of her playing, as well as basic personal information and statistics. A common practice in recent years, it became an essential tool for being seen by college recruiters when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Minnesota North’s season was canceled, which meant the only way coaches could see her perform was online.
Past exposure and current videos paid off on June 15, the first day colleges were allowed to contact potential recruits. Hannah heard from over 50 schools who were interested in her.
“It was just super exciting,” Hannah said. “I guess I didn’t realize just how much I had grown and how good I was at volleyball. It was reassuring, I think, because I had worked hard. I wanted to do this, and it was finally happening for me.”
Not every school was an option, as COVID-related changes at the college level that automatically gave players an extra year of eligibility also cut back on the number of scholarships they had to offer. Iowa State, one of Hannah’s top choices, fell by the wayside as a result.
“They ran out of scholarships, and they hadn’t been able to see me play as much as they needed to, which I definitely understood,” Hannah said. “So then it was down to UMD and Illinois State, which I think is the hardest decision I’ve ever made. But the final decision is the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Hannah and Jodi communicated with Illinois State Coach Leah Johnson for about a month and a half before making an unofficial visit to the campus, one in which direct contact with the coach and the team was prohibited by NCAA rules. They watched practice, the campus felt welcoming and comfortable, but Hannah found a week later that she still couldn’t make a decision. A phone call with Johnson helped her get over the hump.
“We figured out what was holding me back from making a decision was just the fear of making the wrong decision,” Hannah said. “And then she said, ‘Let’s talk next week after you think about it.’ And as soon as I pressed the button to hang up, I knew that that is where I wanted to go.”
Hannah is as interested in Illinois State for the academic possibilities it provides as she is in playing volleyball.
“I’m not exactly sure what I want to do, but I’m leaning toward political science, with more of an environmental stance on it,” Hannah said. “I want to do big things. Illinois State has a political science program and graduate program. We talked with the academic coordinator and she said there are so many opportunities for graduate students with Chicago being so close.”
Jodi admits she was pulling for Hannah to pick UMD because she would get to see her play more often.
“I’m saying, ‘I want to see you play,’ and she’s like, ‘I’m worried about my education,’” Jodi said. “That’s the kind of kid she is.”
However, Jodi, her husband Bob, Hannah’s younger brother Greyson, and perhaps even her five older siblings will likely find a way to get to many of Hannah’s matches. For one thing, Jodi’s parents still live in the same house in Villa Park that she grew up in, just a couple of hours from the Illinois State campus in Normal.
“We’ve looked at round-trip tickets because Duluth has flights direct to Chicago now, for pretty cheap,” Jodi said.
But for now, mother and daughter are happy to have both a direction for Hannah and one more season together.