Jena Otec

Purdue University senior libero Jena Otec makes a diving dig against the University of Kentucky during the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Regional Final in Omaha, Neb. Otec was named the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year this spring.

Jena Otec stands out the moment she steps onto the volleyball court.

Wearing a gold jersey that marks her as the libero among her black-clad Purdue University teammates, the 2017 St. Pius X graduate takes up her position.

The Boilermakers’ opponent, the University of Kentucky, has the opening serve. Otec bends to one knee for the serve-receive and uses her fists to send the ball high for a teammate to either set or spike. Otec repeats this dozens of times during a match. Her job is to defend first and provide offense when the opportunity arises.

Purdue, seeded seventh, took on No. 2 Kentucky April 19 in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament at Omaha. A spot in the national semifinals, which neither school had ever reached before, was on the line.

Otec’s team matched the powerful Wildcats point-for-point in the first two sets, but a 10-1 Kentucky run in the third set pushed them to a 25-23, 25-20, 25-16 victory. The Wildcats beat the University of Texas (No. 4) in four sets to win their first national championship on Saturday. The college volleyball season is usually played in the fall, but because of COVID-19 it didn’t start until January.

Otec’s senior season was capped with several major honors. The Crystal City native was recognized as the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year and was selected by the American Volleyball Coaches Association as an All-American (honorable mention). It’s the first time in the school’s history a libero/defensive specialist was named an All-American or won the conference award. Junior outside hitter Grace Cleveland (first team), senior outside hitter Caitlyn Newton (second team) and junior setter Hayley Bush (honorable mention) were the other three All-Americans for the Boilermakers, who finished the season 16-7 overall and 14-6 in the Big 10.

“I was shocked. (Defensive Player of the Year) is an incredible award and I feel very blessed and very grateful to receive it,” said Otec, who led the Big 10 with 383 digs this season. “It says a lot about my program and teammates who helped me achieve this.”

Playing for the Lancers in high school, Otec was an offensive force, helping them win the Class 2 state championship in 2016. Her younger sister, Caly Otec, played with Jena for one year and was part of St. Pius’ back-to-back state championship teams in 2016 and 2017. Caly plays volleyball at Missouri State University in Springfield.

After Otec played her final game for the Lancers, she told me her role would change once she got to Purdue. At 5-10, she knew she’d be forced to the back row. Division I volleyball demands height. The Boilermakers don’t have a middle blocker or outside hitter shorter than 6-1.

“As a libero you can’t jump-attack and get a point,” Otec said. “When I serve (Otec had two aces against Kentucky) I want to be aggressive and earn a way into a rally. When it does come to defense, I can’t get points, but I can help my teammates get points. It’s different from high school and club days when I was getting those points. I knew coming in I would primarily be a back-row player. I wanted to play in the best conference in the country. It was a pretty easy transition because I was playing back row as a six-rotation player in high school and club.”

Because the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for student-

athletes after COVID altered or canceled seasons, Otec is still eligible to play one more year at Purdue. She will graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree in selling and sales management, with a minor in organizational leadership. Otec said if she’s invited to continue playing for the Boilermakers, she will. If not, she wants to stay connected with the team and sport as a graduate assistant.

“When I was talking to my academic advisor, I told her I don’t want to give up the sport and want to be around it as much as possible,” Otec said. “I coach a club team and I would like to pursue coaching, and that’s something I have to try out.”

Whether she dons the gold jersey again or not, Otec can look back on delivering one of the best seasons ever for a Purdue libero.  She had 4.56 digs per set, the third-best mark in program history and second-highest average in the Big Ten this season. Otec recorded a career-high 31 digs vs. Minnesota on Feb. 5 and is one of just 11 Boilermakers ever to make 30 or more digs in a single match. During her career, Otec averaged 2.8 digs per set, the ninth-most by a Boilermaker and most since Carly Cramer (3.49 in 2009-13). Otec’s 1,272 total career digs rank No. 10 in program history.

“We played Minnesota twice and both matches went five sets,” she recalled. “They were really good games. I remember being upset because we lost both, but Minnesota came into the tournament seeded third.”

Dave Shondell, the head coach at Purdue for 18 years, has a record of 364-191 (.656). In an email, Shondell said Otec had a tremendous season.

“Her relentless pursuit of greatness as a server, passer, defender, and team leader, has been inspirational to follow during her outstanding career,” Shondell said. “(She) developed dramatically as a team leader this past nine months. Jena is a wonderful example of an athlete’s determination to become the very best possible version of herself.”

With all of the recognition she’s received this month, playing in the Elite Eight and graduation on the horizon, I asked Otec what she would put at the top of her resume. I told her my choice would be that Big 10 Defensive POY award.

“It was a really good month and season, the most memorable I’ve had at Purdue,” Otec said. “My teammates get along so well on and off the court and we had the right chemistry.”

To reduce COVID exposure, the entire NCAA volleyball tournament was played in Omaha. The Boilermakers beat High Point University from North Carolina in the first round and the University of Oregon to reach the final eight. Otec’s family attended the tournament, as they had many of her matches at Purdue.

Playing libero comes with its share of bumps and bruises. Early in the match against Kentucky, Otec ran out of bounds to save a Wildcat volley and plowed right into the scorer’s table. ESPN, broadcasting the match live, replayed her effort in slow motion. Soon after, Otec scored an ace. She said the training she received at Purdue made all of her goals there achievable.

“I am very proud of my team,” she said. “This tournament was different than any before. We played a lot of teams in a short amount of time. We played Kentucky the day after we played a really good Oregon team. Kentucky is playing at a really high level. Playing a team like that to get to the final four is difficult when you have less than 24 hours to prepare for them.”

A spring snow blanketed Omaha during the tournament, and more white stuff awaited Otec and her teammates when they got back to their campus at West Lafayette, Ind. That had her contemplating a sunny destination after she graduates.

“It’ll be good to get out of the Midwest,” she joked.