A Fan of the Game

Sports Talk, Straight Talk

Gergen sisters not an ordinary duo

Wednesday, September 9, 2009; 10:01 PM

Two young sisters visit the Grand Canyon and enjoy a masterpiece of nature.

Jill Gergen walks ahead of her family, and the view inspires her. Noticing a chipmunk in a nearby tree, she smiles and meanders along the canyon’s edge. She continues ahead, looking left and right, allowing her feet to instinctively lead the way.

She is in no danger. She knows how close she is to the edge.

No fear.

Her older sister Jayme stays back with the family and carefully observes her younger sister. The more important masterpiece of nature – the sisterly bond – begins to exert itself. Muscles tense up and nerves tingle.

Jayme is nervous. She wonders if Jill knows how close she is to the edge.

Jayme expresses her anxiety to her mother who reassures her everything is all right.

As different as people can be from their siblings, the bond between them created at birth never goes away. It’s no different for Jill and Jayme, but that bond might be stronger than most.

“I won’t let anything bad happen to her,” Jayme said.

That sisterly bond comes with a side effect of sibling rivalry, though. Ask your doctor before starting your daily dose of Gergen attitude.

A game of dodgeball showcased the attitude. “Keep your eye on the ball” is the motto. Jill wasn’t looking, and Jayme pegged her right in the face. No “I’m sorry.” Just “That’s why you keep your head on a swivel.”

Never-say-never is an incorrect phrase for the Gergen sisters. They definitely have ‘never’ in their vocabulary, except ‘never’ is followed by ‘quit,’ ‘die’ and ‘stop.’

Jayme is in her fifth year as an assistant coach for Virginia Tech volleyball. Jill, a redshirt senior, plays libero on the team.

The two come from Topeka, Kan. – almost one thousand miles from Blacksburg, Va. How did they end up here?

The journey began for Jayme when she signed to play with Georgia Tech and started her career there in 2001. During her tenure, she was an American Volleyball Coaches Association honorable mention All-American, first-team All-ACC honoree, and Academic All-District selection.

She finished her career ranked second in career hitting percentage for Georgia Tech (.353), fifth for career block assists (426), and total blocks (473).

Jayme Gergen during her career at Georgia Tech

Jayme Gergen during her career at Georgia Tech

Meanwhile, Jill was anything but jealous. She wanted to be just like her sister. When she stopped growing at 5 feet 6 inches, the realization came that her goal would not come true.

“My mom wrote me this letter before a tournament, one time,” Jill said. “(My mom) said, ‘Jillian, you’ve got to jump out of (Jayme’s) footsteps and start making your own.’ I think that really just inspired me, and I think I’ve done a great job making my own. Hers are great to follow – they’re just a little too big for me.”

Current Hokies head coach Chris Riley was the head coach for Towson University at the time, and Riley wanted to bring Jill there. Unfortunately, Riley didn’t have a scholarship for the libero position, so Jill was left to find a school elsewhere.

She landed at the University of Nebraska-Kearney for her freshman year in 2005, but the experience wasn’t what she had hoped for. Luckily, Riley became the head coach at Tech, and she talked to him about joining the team.

Her sister, Jayme, had been an assistant coach with Virginia Tech the year prior to Riley’s arrival, so it was an added bonus.

Jayme as assistant coach for Virginia Tech. Photo is from her first year at VT

Jayme as assistant coach for Virginia Tech. Photo is from her first year at VT coaching against GT

“Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen,” Jill said, looking at her sister.

Not wanting to appear a coach’s favorite, Jill and Jayme decided to keep their sisterhood quiet in the beginning.

“We really wanted to keep that separate for her,” Jayme said. “It was going to be better for her experience to establish herself as a teammate and player.”

The sisters easily kept the secret. They sound alike, but Jayme talks much faster than Jill. They don’t look too much alike, Jayme being 6-feet tall and Jill 5-feet-6-inches, so no one noticed.

Since then, the two of them are easy to recognize and remember, but for different reasons.

“If you have Jayme Gergen as a friend, you’ll have her as a friend for life,” Riley said. “She’ll never forget you. She’ll always be there.”

When asked what each admired about the other, their eyes met, and, within half a second, all the memories and stories of their lives were unlocked.

Both of them said, “You go first.”

“No, you go first.”

“I’ve met very few people who have such a sunny disposition,” Jill said, “and are just so sweet to everyone. I think her personality is one of a kind.”

Jayme smiled and pondered her admirations of Jill.

“What I value most about Jill is her fight,” Jayme said. “It’s the size of the fight in the dog here. This kid has battled it out in a lot of different ways in life. She never quits. She never gives up. She just keeps working because she knows if she works hard, good things are going to happen for her, and they have … and she’s amazing.”

Jill going for a dig during a match

Jill going for a dig during a match

Maybe the most admirable trait both have is their love of their family. So many times people mention family as the most important part of their lives. The love these sisters have for their mom, dad and brother is palpable.

Jill talked about taking a characteristic from her family members and using them in all aspects of her life. She chose her dad’s patience, her mom’s persistence, Jayme’s dedication and her brother Jake’s fearlessness.

“If I could take a little bit of every single person in my family, I think I’d be superwoman,” Jill said.

Jill digging a ball

Jill digging a ball

If that’s the case, superwoman is a closet mathematician. Jill loves being a math major and teaching math to people who don’t understand it.

She’s finishing her undergraduate program in math and starting her master’s degree in education. Yes, that’s right, Jill wants to be a math teacher. The reasoning behind it, though, may not be what you’d expect.

Teachers used to tell her she wasn’t good at math, and she took the lowest math courses in grade school.

“When I tell people I’m a math major back home, they just drop their jaws,” Jill said. “I’m not good at it, but I love it.”

It sounds modest, but Jill doesn’t always understand the math at first, and it takes a while to click in her head. That’s precisely why she believes she can be a good teacher –  understanding how the student thinks.

Jayme also understands how players and people think. She majored in psychology at Georgia Tech, and it’s paid dividends in her coaching career. Trying to get a group of players to commit to the same goal can be tough for any coach, but Jayme does it well. Besides coaching during the season, she also coaches a club team in the spring and is the volleyball camp coordinator for the many summer camps at Virginia Tech.

“Jayme’s willingness to help people is completely based on her personality,” Riley said. “She’s going to be a great head coach some day. She’s going to win more games than I’ve ever won. Her kids will run through walls for her, no question.”

Having both Jill and Jayme on the same coaching staff after Jill graduates could be an interesting team, much like Seth and Brad Greenberg years ago for Tech basketball, but it probably won’t happen.

Jill’s passion is teaching, but volleyball is something she will always love. She is still considering coaching high school volleyball along with being a math teacher. The dynamic duo might not be completely separated after this year.

“I always told Jayme she should be a high school psychology teacher – that way we can have lunch breaks together,” Jill said jokingly.

Either way, the Gergen sisters will always be a pedal-to-the-metal pair, ready to take on the world – but watch out for cliffs and canyons.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | Volleyball | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment