Jenna Splitt heeded the words that her parents, Doug and Renee, and her older sister, Alli, offered regarding difficult times.
“Control what you can control,” they advised. The Cary-Grove senior, a Northwest Herald All-Area Volleyball first-team selection, has done her best during the toughest year of her life to remain upbeat.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced most school districts to utilize remote learning and put many of the high school sports seasons on hold. Then, in October, Doug Splitt was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer.
C-G volleyball coach Patty Langanis marvels at the way she has battled through a year heaped with adversity.
“It’s just the way she approaches things,” Langanis said. “I’m having athletes who are losing passion. Some athletes (around school) feel like they’re not really motivated to work hard (with their season in question). This kid keeps getting knocked and knocked, she’s losing so much, and she just keeps fighting.
“She’s a motivation to so many kids who are losing it right now. How do you keep yourself so motivated when so many things are falling apart? That’s why I get so emotional.”
Splitt was supposed to return as the Trojans setter this season, but the IHSA adjusted its sports seasons in July, moving volleyball, rated as a medium-risk sport by the Illinois Department of Public Health, to the spring season (Feb. 16 through May 1).
Splitt had planned to finish her graduation requirements early and attend Iowa for the spring semester to get in early work with the Hawkeyes. Splitt stuck with that plan and moved into Iowa’s athletic dormitory over the holiday break, with help from Alli. Splitt will work out and watch the Hawkeyes from the bench when they start their season later this month.
“This year has been something nobody could imagine happening,” Splitt said. And what happened to my dad, no one could imagine that happening because he seemed totally healthy. Losing your senior season, you can’t imagine that. I was super-excited, and I love my team and my coach. It was definitely a hard decision to do.
“I can’t control what the IHSA was going to do, I can’t control what’s going to happen with the coronavirus, and I can’t control what my dad’s going through. I can control my emotions and how I interact with people around me. People around me are such a big support, so that’s where I get my motivation from.”
SPLITT’S BIGGEST FAN
Langanis is thrilled that Splitt is playing at her alma mater. She considers Splitt “probably the most talented player I have ever coached” and also thinks of her as the consummate teammate.
“She cares so much about her teammates, she’s humble, almost to a fault,” Langanis said. “This kid, from how she eats to how she works to how she acts in school, everything is done perfectly. She loves Cary-Grove volleyball, it’s in her heart.”
Which made the decision to leave high school early more complicated. When Splitt committed to Iowa in July of 2018, Bond Shymansky was the Hawkeyes coach. Shymansky and his staff brought up the possibility of her coming to Iowa City a semester early.
“She didn’t want to let anybody [at C-G] down,” Renee Splitt said of her daughter. “Does it make sense to go? All things considered, it still made sense. In Illinois will they even have a season? There’s no more credits needed (to graduate). Her older sister wanted her to go. Her dad wanted her to go. I was on the fence. She’s wanted to be captain of this team since third grade. It’s a lot to walk away from.”
Langanis moved Splitt, who is 5-foot-10, from outside hitter as a freshman to setter, knowing she would not be considered tall enough to hit in the Big Ten Conference.
The Trojans undoubtedly will miss one of the area’s top players. Langanis ran a 6-2 set, which allows for two setters in the rotation (Splitt and senior Lauren Passaglia) at the same time.
“[Splitt] was such a great teammate. She was a very consistent player and we knew we had her to go to,” Passaglia said. “If things started getting down, she would always smile and keep everyone going. She’s very uplifting.
“It’s definitely going go be a different dynamic on the team, but everybody gets along really well, so it’ll still be a fun season.”
NO FRESHMAN WAIVER
Since the Big Ten pushed back the start of its volleyball season until January, Iowa coach Vicki Brown hoped Splitt, and other freshmen, might be eligible to play right away.
The NCAA ruled that freshmen not on campus in the fall could not play. There were about 20 waivers submitted by NCAA schools for incoming freshman athletes among various sports to become eligible. The NCAA turned all of them down.
“If you were in college and able to participate in a fall season that didn’t happen, then you’re eligible to transfer and play immediately,” Renee Splitt said. “That doesn’t do anything for Jenna.”
Alli Splitt, who graduated from NCAA Division II Illinois-Springfield last May as the Stars’ career leader in hitting percentage (.329), now is working on her master’s degree in child and family studies at UIS and is an assistant coach for the volleyball team.
Alli helped Jenna get acclimated in Iowa City over the break, before heading back to Springfield.
“I’m so proud of everything that she’s done,” Alli Splitt said. “She has been so successful and worked so hard on and off the court, it’s been a pleasure to see her growing up, especially in the sport I love to play.
“It’s fun to see her excel and see what a great player she’s become. I can’t wait to see how far she’ll go at Iowa. She knows if she starts to get negative it won’t help anyone, so she’s been super-positive about the whole thing and she’d doing what she feels is going to help benefit her future.”
POWER OF POSITIVITY
Doug Splitt’s cancer diagnosis shocked his family. He was experiencing some back pain and thought maybe it came from when he fell hard playing basketball in high school.
“Learning about it was kind of like a gut punch,” Jenna Splitt said.
Forty-five minutes into his examination, Doug learned of the seriousness. Renee says her husband has not dwelt on his illness, which is typical for him.
“You talk about people being servant leaders, putting others before yourself, always,” she said. “He’s never one to be in the spotlight, never has wanted to be. This is about a challenge. Like any challenge, you’re going to face it head-on with your family.”
Jenna went ahead with plans to leave home early and take on her next challenge, Big Ten volleyball and a nursing degree. She plans to some day become a neonatal nurse practitioner.
It was another reason to leave high school early and get an extra semester for academics in a difficult major field.
While Splitt cannot compete with Iowa this spring, she can practice and will learn from the bench.
“When they’re playing, I can learn how to strategize because eventually, hopefully, I’ll be playing against those teams,” Splitt said. “It’s like a head start. It’s about meeting the team, connecting with the hitters and how they run their offense, how the coaches coach. I know there’s going to be so many benefits with getting to know the team during this time.”
Splitt plans on maintaining close contact with her C-G teammates during their season. She plans on texting words of encouragement often.
“As a family, we talk a lot about perseverance and sacrifice and just doing the right thing,” Renee Splitt said. “Finding solutions to problems that you face. A friend put it to me in this simple sense: ‘What do you want now vs. what do you want more?’ That simple mindset changes everything. Sacrifices become opportunities.”