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Career Change

Feb 09, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

New mom Alyssa Jensen is thrilled to have the chance to play pro volleyball nearly six years after completing her collegiate career at MSU.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Nicolas Carrillo

Alyssa Jensen was pregnant when news broke in December 2022 that Grand Rapids would be the first city to play in the new Pro Volleyball Federation.

In the spring, when Cathy George, her coach for four seasons at Michigan State University, floated the idea of playing for the new team, the 6-foot-4 Jensen conceded that playing pro was the furthest thing from her mind. She was thinking more about motherhood than starting a new career.

"But she was encouraging me, like 'You could do this,'" Jensen recalled. "And the more I thought about it, my mindset started to shift to 'I know I can I can do this,' and everything fell into place."

Jensen knew it was in her best interests to listen to George because it had paid dividends before.

Aaron Jensen had been a member of the pitching staff for the Grand Rapids Community College baseball team with T.J. George, the older of the Grand Rapids Rise head coach's two boys. (Conner, the younger son, played basketball for Tom Izzo at MSU.)

"They lived together and were best friends, so Aaron would always go to MSU football games and volleyball games with T.J.," Jensen said. "Aaron would joke with Cathy, like 'Pull up the roster. Who do you got to set me up with?' That type of thing. And one night she actually did it.

"She had known Aaron for a long time and she pointed at me and was like, 'Oh, this girl. Good family. Good similar backgrounds. You guys would gel well.' And then she added the kicker, 'But don't talk to her until after the season.'

"I knew T.J. from him being Cathy's son. When I saw the guy next to him, I was like 'Oh, he's kind of cute. And tall [6-8].' But I didn't think anything about it. And then we met out one night and things went from there. I guess he didn't follow her rule but, to be fair, I didn't either."

Things quickly became serious and, roughly three years later, then-Alyssa Garvelink of Holland wed Big Rapids native Aaron Jensen on Sept. 26, 2020. They welcomed the arrival of their first child, Ella, on May 9, 2023.

Born a week early, Ella was not overly long, but she is already trending toward the tall side of the length charts. Odds are she will not be short.

"I just hope that it's like a normal tall, because it's hard being super tall," she said. "Even at my height, it's not easy growing up. I grew up in Holland so it's a bunch of Dutch people. I was always on the taller side but not the tallest."

She recalls her eighth-grade summer as the time when she really experienced a growth spurt. "I think I grew like a foot in the summer," she said. "So I went through a kind of an adjustment period to my new tall body."

Always fairly athletic, she played soccer, basketball and volleyball growing up, but by high school it was clear that volleyball was becoming her focus.

"By freshman year of high school, volleyball was already a priority," she said. "Basketball was just social to me at that point because all my friends played it. I didn't necessarily love basketball like I did volleyball.

"What I loved about volleyball is it's such a team-driven sport, which of course most sports are, but there's a closeness in volleyball that you don't find in other sports. It's kind of a rah-rah sport because we celebrate after each point. I just kind of like that."

She led Holland Christian to conference championships all four years of high school. A self-described homebody, she was looking at attending college in West Michigan – Hope, Calvin or Grand Valley – when she realized she might be able to look further afield.

"Suddenly Michigan State was in the mix and Purdue, too," she said. "But I never went and visited Purdue because when I went to State, it just felt like home. The campus was beautiful and not very far from home, and I loved Cathy. She was so welcoming and her presence was just so fun and intense."

Jensen said playing for George was a positive experience because she knows how to build a team.

"I've always said her philosophy is recruiting good people, and that's who I was always surrounded with – good teammates," she said. "Obviously she cares about volleyball, she wants to win, but deep down, at the root of everything, she likes good people, and she cares about you as a person. Back then she wanted to set us up for success and teach us all the lessons a typical college person should learn, and I did.

"I can take so many things from my college experience and apply it to life, as I'm sure most people can."

From the beginning, she saw how George's people-first philosophy paid dividends.

"We had a great freshman class," she said. "Just learning everything and the speed of the game was obviously different than high school, so there were adjustments, but we had great seniors who took us under their wing and helped us along."

Although Jensen says her first two years at MSU were a bit of a blur, she is confident that she matured as a player during her collegiate career.

"I was definitely more emotional as a freshman," she explained. "Like the highs were really high and the lows were really low, and sometimes I would get a little upset on the court and be very intense in the moment.

"I think as time went on, I matured and found a better balance. I saw that it was probably not great for the team to go through such highs and lows. Now I look back and I think it took me so long to learn that. I wish I had learned it sooner."

Always highly driven, Jensen learned how to work her competitive nature to her advantage.

"My junior and senior years were more memorable to me. I don't know why," she said. "I think it was channeling my competitiveness to offer more encouragement to others, making sure that my teammates knew they didn't have to worry about me."

She was a Second Team All-American during her junior and senior seasons (2016-17) in addition to earning All-Academic Big Ten honors from 2015-17.

"[Being named All-American] was a huge honor because honestly, that wasn't one of my goals. It kind of happened due to team goals, which is not to say that I didn't work for it because I worked hard. It was just a nice cherry on the top to my junior and senior years."

During her time at MSU, Jensen came to appreciate the importance of good defensive play.

"I think I may have enjoyed defense a little bit more, just because a good block can, in my opinion, shift the momentum of a game. Obviously, a good kill can do it as well, but there's something about a block that kind of shuts the opposing team down and pumps your team up."

After her senior season, Jensen could have played pro volleyball elsewhere – Peru was one option – but in the end, she chose to stay home.

"I had met my future husband and he encouraged me to go, but I've always been a homebody and I like being close to family. I'm adventurous to a point, but if I didn't have anyone out there with me, that wasn't something I was interested in."

And so, their athletic careers seemingly behind them, Jensen and her new husband settled into 9-to-5 jobs. He still dabbled as an assistant coach for the Kenowa Hills High School baseball team while working as a pharmacy operations supervisor for Meijer. She kept playing volleyball recreationally while employed as a board relations specialist at National Heritage Academies in Grand Rapids.

Then came the baby. Then the new job offer.

If becoming a mother changes your life, becoming a mother and a pro athlete at the same time will turn your world upside down.

For Jensen, it's a touch of heaven.

"[Becoming a parent] is life-changing, amazing and difficult, but in the most rewarding way," she said with the broadest of smiles. "She's seven months now and every age has just been more fun than the last. She recognizes us, she smiles at us when we come home. It's just the best thing to come home to and see."

Any lingering doubts dissipated once the decision was made to pursue a position with the Rise.

"My husband was super supportive in making it all work with being a new family of three," she said. "I know my volleyball skills didn't go away and I know the training it took to get me there, and honestly, I feel great. Probably even better than I did before. Having a baby kind of changes your body, and I think that shift has worked in my favor."

Jensen is enthusiastic about the arrival of the first full-fledged pro volleyball league for women – like giving birth to something new all again.

"Just to be a part of the first year is exciting and seeing everything come together has been really cool," she said. "To have a women's professional sport in the town that I live in is just amazing and I couldn't say no to the opportunity," said Jensen, who grew up going to Grand Rapids Griffins and West Michigan Whitecaps games.

"I know volleyball is big in Grand Rapids with a lot of clubs around, and I just hope that girls and young girls like my daughter, too, can see us play and know that it's an option for them after college if they want. So, yeah, it's a huge honor."

And so Jensen is eager to start the new career that she never envisioned nor imagined. "It is very exciting because volleyball, like any sport that is growing, just keeps going up," she said. "I'm very fortunate."

Reprinted from the premiere issue of Horizons, the official magazine of the Grand Rapids Rise.