Grandma Alice knew Jada Walker would play volleyball at UNLV, even before Walker herself knew it.
At a high school tournament, Grandma Alice spied the UNLV logo on Allison Keeley's shirt and struck up a conversation with the new women's coach. "She told me her granddaughter was going to play for me," Keeley says. But Keeley wasn't so optimistic; she didn't have a scholarship to offer the defensive specialist.
Walker became a walk-on and played in all 27 of the team's matches her freshman year in 2004. Grandma Alice cried when she saw her granddaughter play as a Rebel for the first time. She passed away just a few months later, but would have been proud of Walker's accomplishments. Walker was named to the Mountain West Conference (MWC) all-tournament team as a freshman and continued to rack up honors. She now holds the MWC record for career digs at 2,055, as well as school records for most digs in a match, season, and career.
In the eighth grade, Walker attended her first collegiate match. "I remember thinking that this is what I want to do: play volleyball at the Division I level," she says. And she saw something else she wanted. "I was a skinny kid, and I remember these big UCLA players with these nice, toned legs, and I wanted that."
As a high school senior, Walker realized that to play at the Division I level, she needed to change positions. She had always been a setter, but at only 5 feet 4 inches tall, she would have difficulty playing at the net in college. She switched to libero (LEE-bah-ro), a designated back-row player and ball-control specialist who cannot block or attack the ball above the net.
In 2004, Keeley took over a program with only one winning record since the sport was re-established at UNLV in 1996. The coach built a foundation with four freshmen: Maria Aladjova, Lauren Miramontes, Brittani Lumsden, and Walker. After going 15-12 in 2004 and 15-15 in 2005, the team broke through with a 20-10 record in 2006, but was not invited to the NCAA tournament. Instead of parting ways for that summer's break, the players stayed in town to play in leagues. By NCAA rules, Keeley cannot be involved in summer workouts, so Walker took the responsibility for the preseason preparations.
UNLV started the 2007 season winning 10 of its first 11 matches, which led to a season of firsts: a top-25 ranking, the MWC tournament title, and an NCAA tournament berth. "We achieved all our goals," Walker says. "It was truly a magical season. I can't help but smile when talking about it."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
One of nine kids, Walker says her large family brought out her competitive sprit. Her father played basketball; her stepfather played baseball; her brother, Delwyn Young, plays in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization; a sister is a promising softball player; and a younger brother plays football.
"My brothers and sisters made me tough -- both physically and mentally," she says, "because we would talk a lot of crap to each other."
In a large family, there are a lot of different personalities, Walker says. "I had to speak to and approach each sibling in a different way. It was the same with my teammates."
Walker also relishes the accomplishments of others; she won the MWC sportsmanship award her freshman year. "I am a fan of good volleyball," she says. "I congratulate my opponent after a good play and after the match."