Jolene Patton was a fixture in Tampa volleyball. Her mother had been the coach at the University of Tampa, and Patton was one of the best players in the state. She led Tampa Prep to consecutive state titles and was named Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year after her senior season with the Terrapins.
But grades kept her from leaving Tampa, so she stayed home and played college ball at the University of Tampa for Chris Catanach, who was an assistant under Patton’s mother, Sandi, at UT from 1981-83 and had known Patton since she was born.
But the situation at UT wasn’t to Patton’s liking, and her passion for the game was slowly dying.
“It was a bad situation, and I wanted to get away from home,” Patton said. “I went from being the No. 1 player in high school to a role player at UT because I was a freshman. It’s hard to transition to that. There were a lot of different things going on, and I was getting depressed a little bit with my game.”
Making the problem even worse was that the Spartans and Patton were excelling. As a freshman, Patton was the Sunshine State Conference’s Freshman of the Year and a second-team all-conference pick, as well as an All South Regional selection.
The success kept coming UT and Patton’s way when she became a sophomore.
The Spartans advanced all the way to the Division II National Championship game in 1999 before succumbing to BYU-Hawaii. Patton led UT with 16 kills in the match and was a first-team All-SSC pick, as well as a repeat choice for All South Region.
“Those were two of the best teams we’ve ever had,” Catanach said. “She came here and was second or third fiddle, where she was the go-to player in high school. She was our third or fourth option behind some juniors and seniors who were pretty good. That’s not knocking Jolene. If she had stayed, she would have been outstanding this year as a senior.
“But she was not our savior.”
In search of a higher level of competition, Patton walked away. She wanted to go to Tennessee after completing the first semester of her sophomore year at UT, but they wanted to delay her enrollment another semester. So, she decided to play for her friend Chris Redding at Appalachian State. But the competition was lacking in North Carolina, so, a semester later, Patton thought about transferring back to UT, but instead found her way to USF.
“I really wanted to come in there and make an impact,” Patton said. “But I didn’t really succeed as much as I wanted to. I was Player of the Year in Florida, and so I was supposed to be All-American at UT.
“I believe when a person is not happy, they’re not going to play. And I was not happy. It was a changing point. But it definitely worked out. It’s crazy how things worked out because I was not going to come here from high school.”
With her transfer from Appalachian State, Patton had to do something she’s never done before — not play volleyball.
“Even my redshirt year (2000), I never thought I could sit out, but I enjoyed being around the girls, and the coaches were good,” Patton said. “It was a good experience for me because my passion came back. It kind of died a little bit at the University of Tampa, but it really made that passion for volleyball come back.”
The Patton passion for volleyball isn’t just limited to Jolene. In addition to her mother coaching at Tampa, her older sister Janine, 23, played at a junior college, and her younger sister Justeen, 17, is currently playing at the junior college level.
“Janine didn’t have the passion of Justeen and I, but she wishes she had played more now,” Patton said. “I think we both really enjoy watching each other play. I definitely pushed her my whole life, and she looks up to me a lot. She even flew home one weekend just to watch me play. We both encourage each other and push each other, and that’s one of the reasons she’s as good as she is. And she’s helped me along the way too — inspired me to do things, joked around with me when I take things too seriously.
“My older sister and I were a little more competitive, so we used to butt heads. I think I won because I was bigger and stronger.”
The ability to play closer to home and being a part of a more cohesive team have sparked Patton through her junior and senior seasons. Even the experience of playing for a Division II National Championship couldn’t compare to Patton’s time at USF.
“When you’re happier, you’re going to play better,” Patton said. “We could have touched a higher potential even though we were the elite in Division II. I come here now and it’s better. I’m happier, (and) team chemistry is better. We work harder. It’s a Division I school. You have to work harder.”
“This team really inspired me because they have so much intensity, and (they) have fun and love the sport.”
And while the transition to being the second option at UT was difficult for Patton, the 6-foot senior has slid nicely into the No. 2 role, trailing only Michelle Collier in kills and digs. As the Bulls head toward a possible postseason berth, Patton’s intensity for the game has never been higher, and she said that regardless of this season’s outcome, she hopes volleyball is still in her future.
“I don’t feel like I’ve touched my potential yet, which is scary because college is almost over,” Patton said. “But that’s why I want to keep playing because I want to see how good I can get.”
Contact Anthony Gagliano at firstname.lastname@example.org