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Spring 2018 Download Cover
unleashed

Unleashed

Graham digs in to make a difference.

This fall Jessica Graham broke the college record for Digs — a mark of 1,631 career digs held by a friend and former teammate, Reagan Styles Breitenstein '13.

It was all but certain that Graham would surpass the record even before the season began. She entered her senior season needing 316 digs, an amount more than attainable for someone who went for 576 digs as a sophomore, the second-most in college history for a single season, followed by 552 digs her junior year, third-most in school history.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it, but it's to the point where I know I'm going to do it," said Graham in the days leading up to her record-breaking match. "It will be pretty cool to have my name in the record books. It's something my dad challenged me to do my first year. I thought it was an attainable goal, and then after my sophomore year, I knew I had a real shot at it."

Graham went for 21 in four sets last Saturday, breaking the record midway through the opening set. She averages more than 4.5 digs per set and 16.5 digs per match this season.

Now, it's about padding the record. Should her average hold the remainder of the year, the senior libero would accumulate more than 1,850 digs by season's end, smashing the current record by more than 200 digs.

"I think it's cool to have played with Reagan and learned from her," added Graham, who was new to the team in the fall of 2012, the season Styles became the Wofford record holder. "I got to spend a year watching her play the position. I think it really helped me figure out how I could be the best I could be. She was rooting for me to break her record."

But breaking the record isn't the only goal Graham set for herself in her final season. She wanted to be a senior leader that helped her volleyball team win, and she's done exactly that. Wofford has defeated both Samford and Furman this season, the two teams that claimed the SoCon Tournament and regular season championship, respectively, in 2014. Not only did the Terriers win those matches in front of their home crowd, they did so in dominating fashion, sweeping both teams in three sets.

"She had two unbelievable matches," said head volleyball coach Lynze Roos. "She held down her side of the court very well, took care of short serves and attacks, and held up her responsibilities as a senior libero."

Graham's performance led her to being selected as Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Week, an honor she earned on just one other occasion as a sophomore in 2013.

"She's done a great job of stepping up and being coachable," added Roos. "She has a willingness to learn and buys into our system. It can be a difficult to have a new coach your senior year, but Jess has done a great job of learning the discipline I want her to have – being in the correct position in different situations."

As with all Wofford student-athletes, Graham is a student first and has other interests and commitments outside of volleyball. One of those interests was sparked during her first week at Wofford when Graham attended Maj. Simon Stricklen's 8 a.m., military science class. It wasn't a completely foreign subject for then-18-year-old freshman. The year prior, as a senior year at Ashley Hall High School in Charleston, near her hometown of Goose Creek, S.C., she took a class called Peace, War and Defense.

The subject was intriguing to Graham. After all, both of her grandfathers served a few years in the military, one in the Army and one in the Air Force. Her father, William, is a 1985 graduate of The Citadel, and she also has an uncle, Jack Garris, who served for 30 years, including two stints in Vietnam. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

When Stricklen approached Graham's class about the opportunity to join Wofford's ROTC program, Graham gave it serious consideration. After keeping those thoughts to herself for a while, she eventually opened up the discussion with her parents.

"They were not too thrilled about the idea of it at first, which I think is natural as a parent," said Graham. "Obviously, they were worried about my safety, but we were able to come to an agreement."

The agreement was that Graham would take on a Guaranteed Reserved Forces Duty (GRFD) scholarship. She would have her sophomore, junior and senior years of college paid for in full. In return, Graham would drill with a reserve unit one weekend per month and two weeks per year during her three remaining years at Wofford. She also would commit six years of service to a reserve unit of her choice, two years of service for each year of paid school.

"I have other kids that took a GRFD scholarship, but none of them are student-athletes," said Master Sgt. John Goforth, a senior military instructor at Wofford. "Jessica is the first student-athlete we've had. To be a student-athlete, to do ROTC and to maintain your academic requirements is tough. She goes a mile a minute."

Graham will commission with the National Guard upon graduation this May, continuing her monthly and annual training requirements.

"There are a number of things a unit may work on during those training periods," said Lt. Col. Albert Yonkovitz, chair of Wofford's Department of Military Science. "The unit will work on anything their commander feels the unit has to work on to improve readiness. They might do weapons qualification, they might go out to the field, or they might work on their MOS (military occupational specialty) tasks.

"Since Jessica is commissioning with the National Guard, a more specific training she might have is called defense support of civilian authorities (DSCA). That's a situation where the unit trains to assist in an emergency situation. A current example of DSCA deployment is with the flooding throughout the state. We have a couple of cadets in the Columbia area right now in a National Guard status, at the request of the state, assisting with flood control and supplies."

Before being allowed to commission, Graham had to complete the Cadet Leadership Course (CLC); successful completion of CLC is a prerequisite to becoming an Army officer through ROTC. She did so this past summer at Fort Knox, completing the 29-day course that starts with individual training and leads to collective training, building from simple to complex tasks. The purpose of the course is to train U.S. Army ROTC Cadets to Army standards, to develop their leadership skills and to evaluate their officer potential. Every day at CLC is a day of training.

"It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work," said Graham. "We had to complete field exercises that are not only physically challenging, but are also mentally exhausting. One course in particular involved staying up through the night on duty, staying alert and being ready to engage at any moment."

Contrary to what some may think, having her education paid for was not the driving factor in Graham's decision-making process.

"I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself," Graham admitted, which is consistent with her character in every regard. Giving back and serving others have been a part of her life for years.

Since she was in high school, Graham's list of community service involvement includes volunteering at soup kitchens, homeless shelters and the children's museum in Charleston. She has participated in Habitat for Humanity, Miracle League and Adopt-A-Highway programs. She has taken the time to read tests aloud for children with reading comprehension impairments. She was a member of Ashley Hall's National Honor Society and Beta Club. She was also in a baking society that made cookies and other pastries for the Ronald McDonald House in Charleston. At Wofford, she is also involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), serving as chair on the service committee since the spring of her freshman year.

A particular program with which Graham is involved that has had a lasting impact is Charleston Hope. Founded by her childhood friend, Emily Hoisington, Charleston Hope brought Christmas gifts to all students of Burns Elementary School and Charleston Progressive Academy in 2012. The nonprofit has delivered Christmas gifts to multiple schools every year since.

It's Hoisington's dream to expand the idea to other cities. Graham has taken it upon herself to help make Hoisington's wish come true, heading up her own version of Charleston Hope in Spartanburg with the goal of delivering gifts to schools in the area this Christmas.

"I've been in contact with all of the elementary schools in the area," said Graham. "It's an 'adopt-a-classroom' concept, but we won't just deliver Christmas to one classroom. The end result is to deliver Christmas to an entire school."

It proves that beyond athletics, Wofford student-athletes like Jessica Graham are built to be a part of something larger. Records last until they're broken, but character... that lasts forever. 

by Kyle Mattracion