Jessica Wheeler played her final match on Concordia University's home court last weekend, as her storied volleyball career winds down. The words of Cavaliers' graduate assistant Kealia Rose resonate even more with only the Greater Northwest Athletic Conference tourney ahead.
"Kaelia has reminded us throughout the season that we need to play for those who aren't playing anymore, and play for that little girl in the stands who dreams of being you some day," Wheeler said. "I only have one more chance to do that, and I want to make the most of it before it is over."
Wheeler isn't so far removed from being that aspirational, young volleyball player, and her connection to Concordia spans the entirety of her life. Growing up 45 minutes southwest of Portland, Wheeler has memories of attending head coach Melanie Hambelton's volleyball camps during her tenure in charge at Estacada High School.
"I always knew of her, and I went to her camps as a little child," Wheeler commented on her connection to Hambelton, for whom the court at EHS is now named. "As I got more into volleyball, my parents were adamant about me learning through watching. We used to come to Concordia to watch the team play when I was in middle and high school."
Wheeler's mother Carrie played at the University of Portland from 1982-85, and her father Randy has been involved in the volleyball community playing recreationally. Wheeler was a soccer player initially, and got off to a late start as she didn't begin her volleyball career until she was nudged into the sport by her parents in seventh grade.
"My parents made me start playing and I think I cried, but I started loving it right away," Wheeler said. "All my friends were doing it, and I was taller than everyone."
Wheeler enjoyed a successful career at Estacada High, where she was a three-time all-league selection, and a second-team all-state pick her senior season. Despite the success, Wheeler was without a college selection by the time the spring of her senior year rolled around.
"The process of finding a school to go to was stressful, and I was looking for schools that weren't very far away," Wheeler said. "I came for a tryout in the spring and kept in contact with the coaches, but we kind of came to the conclusion that the roster was full for that season."
Finishing her prep career on the track and field team, Wheeler received a phone call later that spring right before practice. It was Hambelton.
"I have known of Jessica for a long time, and I kept looking to see her come up through the high school because I knew that her parents were excellent volleyball players and I thought it might be the same for her," Hambelton said. "I remember coaching Jessica at Estacada's high-school camps, and I saw the talent she had. She was lanky and loved the game."
Wheeler's late commitment to Concordia was accompanied by a degree of uncertainty and anxiousness, as she quickly realized she had only a handful of months to prepare to play at the collegiate level.
"I was freaking out at first, but the fact that I had come here to watch games and knew who the girls on the team were was comforting," Wheeler said. "I found my place here pretty quickly, and knowing that all the upperclassmen had my back in all situations was helpful."
With the support of older players like fellow Estacada alum Tori Johnson ('18), Wheeler grew into her role in her first year on the court. After playing in just seven matches as a freshman, Wheeler has grown into the team's go-to attacking presence this season.
Wheeler leads the Cavaliers in kills (279), which ranks among the top 10 in the league. She has recorded eight double-doubles (kills and digs) this season.
"Jessica is the player she is because she loves the game and wanted to be good at it," said Hambelton. "She has always watched volleyball and sought to learn from watching. When she is in the gym she is a very hard worker as well, and she has taught at our Concordia camps for four straight years. I believe that knowledge transfers when you're coaching, and she just kept growing as a player."
Wheeler is Concordia's lone senior this season, which has put her into a leadership role that she has embraced despite not always feeling entirely confident within.
"I have definitely had a few times where I didn't know how to give everyone what I felt like I needed to," Wheeler said. "I have relied a lot on our returning junior Elyssa Rose, and we work really well together."
Still an active member of the Estacada community, Wheeler is constantly reminded of a family legacy that has brought her to pursue her degree in elementary education.
"I got into it because my grandma was a teacher," Wheeler said of her grandmother Marjorie Stiles. "Being in a small community, people still come up to me and say, 'your grandma changed my life.' The opportunity to impact peoples' lives and make a difference is important, and I have always loved working with children."
While Wheeler's name will appear in the Concordia record books for her healthy statistics, her academic resume is perhaps even more impressive. She earned academic all-GNAC for the third consecutive season this fall, as she carries a near-flawless 3.97 Grade Point Average. She has been on Concordia's honor roll in each of her seasons.
"It is awesome to have players who represent Concordia well," said Hambelton. "If they are good students, respectful people, and self-motivated, that is a plus. Jessica is everything a coach could want in those regards."
This story is slated for our Nov. 28, print edition.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.