When Jess Horwath was 12 years old, her mother Anne built a sand volleyball court in the family’s backyard with 126 tons of sand and hung the net on a couple of big wooden posts from Home Depot.
While Horwath has become one of the top high school players in the state on the hardwood for her Barrington High School team, little did she know one day she’d return to the sand for her collegiate career.
But that’s exactly what Horwath, a 6-foot-1 junior, plans to do after making a commitment to the University of Arizona’s beach volleyball team.
Her announcement comes just four months after she helped lead the Fillies to third place in the IHSA Class 4A state tourney last November at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena.
It was during that banner season last fall when she was also selected for the US National Beach Volleyball Team Development Program. She spent three days in Gulf Shores, Ala. learning from the US Olympic team coaches and playing with some of the best beach volleyball players in the country.
“I had a great time and realized that with continued hard work, I could play at that level,” Horwath said. “Switching to beach volleyball for college will also help me achieve my long-term goal of playing on the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professional) beach volleyball tour.”
And it all started in her backyard before she started playing club volleyball in seventh grade.
“My only prior experience (before club volleyball) was in the backyard with my dad (Rich) and me against my mom and brother (Luke, a freshman now studying at Notre Dame),” Jess recalled. “For extra practice, I would go to an indoor racquetball court to work on my serving and hitting. I liked volleyball right away because after every point, our team huddled together to support each other, and it involved a variety of skill sets that I was eager to learn.
“It’s cool to think that playing two-on-two in the summers was the start of my journey to play college beach volleyball at the University of Arizona.”
Horwath enjoys the change of pace from indoor to beach volleyball.
“With only two players on a side in beach volleyball it’s fun to do all the skills like defending, setting, hitting, blocking, and serving,” she said. “Being able to cover the entire court is a key part of beach volleyball, and my athleticism from playing soccer, basketball, softball, and doing track and field has played well into that. There’s a sort of unpredictability in beach volleyball that’s exciting, as the players get to create their strategy and then adjust as the match goes on because coaching isn’t always allowed while you’re playing. you.”
Horwath has led the Fillies on attack the last three seasons and has 752 career kills heading into her senior year.
“I’m looking to play next year and I’m excited because our team has so many great players coming back from our team that went downstate,” she said. “Coach (Michelle) Jakubowski does an awesome job scheduling tough competition throughout the season to get us ready for the playoffs, which is really valuable in the long run.”
In the long run, Horwath hopes to leave with a degree from Arizona’s Eller College of Management.
“It has a terrific program in Entrepreneurship, and I’ll be applying to the honors college as well,” said Horwath, whose favorite classes at Barrington are honors Pre-Calculus and AP Macroeconomics. “My pre-calculus math class has been great because we are connecting a variety of concepts and macroeconomics and it’s interesting because we’re learning about very real-world topics like inflation, and how political events impact our economy.”
Horwath produced an ACT score of 33 and possesses a 4.45/4.00 GPA with all AP and honors classes.
She’s earned the Junior Volleyball Association AthLeader Award for leadership, academic excellence and outstanding volleyball performance in 2020 and 2021 and the Presidents Educational Award for Outstanding Academic Excellence.
On the court, Horwath has been a Junior Volleyball Association national team member and was selected to train with the USA National Team this fall for the beach game.
“I developed a strong connection with (Arizona) coach (Steve) Walker because of his positive energy and great communication,” Horwath said of her collegiate choice. “He built Arizona into a top 10 team in the nation’s last season, and they play in the Pac-12, which is the strongest beach volleyball conference in the country.
“Academically, it has an honors college, and excels in business. The campus is filled with palm trees. You can see the mountains in the distance, and it’s sunny 286 days of the year. Arizona gives me a great opportunity to reach my full potential, both as a student and athlete.”
Horwath is grateful to have grown up in a family that loves to compete.
“Whether it’s Ping-Pong in the basement, hockey in the driveway or cards at the kitchen table, playing lots of different games with my family over the years taught me that you can’t always control whether you win or lose,” she said . “But you can control trying your best, focusing on the process of improvement and having fun.”