“You walk in the gym and I could immediately spot the one I’d heard about,” Peterson said. “She immediately sticks out for being a head above the rest, both physically and with her play.”
Casstown – Just like her dominating serve on the volleyball court, the last 12 months have been a smashing success for Miami East High School senior Jonni Parker.
There was a Division III high school state championship last November. A verbal commitment to seven-time NCAA champion Penn State University this past winter. A few weeks ago she won an AAU national championship with her 18-Open Munciana Samurai club team. A runner-up finish in the world championship followed. And she even experienced a few minutes of fame after MaxPreps.com named awarded her its Play of the Year after a hustling, body-throwing, shot-blocking effort to win a point in the Vikings’ state title game.
Parker has had much to smile about, including that serve her coach says “scares to death about 90 percent of the teams in the state.”
But she beamed brightest the other day, sitting in the Miami East High School gym bleachers, describing one of her favorite volleyball moments that wasn’t so much about her, but the little girl that came up big. Just like one of Parker’s serves.
Her club team was helping run a youth camp in Alabama. In particular, she and the Samurai players were rooting for a girl struggling to get one over the net.
“She was so small and she got her first hit over the net. We all went crazy,” Parker said, smiling. “It’s that feeling someone accomplished something I tried to teach them. I want to get them to love the game as much as I do. … I like to always think anything you do you’re always being a role model for someone. I love youth camp settings. I love getting to teach the game.”
Good thing. Parker has been schooling opponents since she first came to Miami East as an eighth grader. She transferred from Urbana and still lives in Springfield, making the 25 minute drive to school.
Second-year head coach Dan Peterson first saw Parker prior to her sophomore season. He knew about her before that.
“You walk in the gym and I could immediately spot which one I’d heard about,” Peterson said. “She immediately sticks out for being a head above the rest, both physically and her play.”
The 6-foot Parker – who sets and often hits from the right side – enters her final prep season as the Vikings’ career record holder in aces (352) and kills (1,248). Her 494 kills as a junior set a single-season record. She has a chance to finish among the all-time leaders in solo blocks (she enters the season with 113), digs (564) and assists (763).
“It’s her work ethic, too, that will put her past a lot of people on her career goals,” Peterson said. “A lot of times when you get to the point you’re better than everyone you stop working as hard. The last two years she’s kicked it up a notch.”
She played a major role in Miami East’s five-set state title victory (25-18, 25-17, 22-25, 22-25, 15-6) over Zoarville Tuscarawas Valley at Wright State University in November. Parker led the Vikings overall with 26 kills and five service aces and added 15 assists and 14 digs. The five aces set a Division III state tournament record for a five-set match.
East graduated six seniors and a couple of starters, but returns a solid core that could have the Vikings challenging for a repeat. Senior Kyndall Hellyer and Parker serve as co-captains. The duo combined for 43 of the Vikings’ 51 kills and 42 of the team’s 45 assists in the state championship game.
Peterson said sophomores Gabrielle Hawkins and Sophie Jacomet, both starters last season, will do the majority of the passing this season as the Vikings compete for their fourth state title overall (2011, 2012, 2016) and fourth in the past seven seasons.
It was at last year’s state title game that the Vikings’ GoPro camera on the team sideline captured Parker’s Play of the Year. It was the fifth set and the Vikings were three points away from setting off a state title celebration.
An errant pass off a dig was heading out of bounds toward the Vikings sideline. Parker took a couple steps and with her back to the net, made a diving hit with her right hand to send the ball back to Tuscarawas Valley. Parker, sliding on her back to the end-line, jumped to her feet and ran about eight steps to the net just in time for a point-winning block.
Focused on the intensity of the match at the time, it wasn’t until Peterson was on the bus watching the game film that he realized what Parker had pulled. His reaction?
“Holy crap, she covered some distance pretty fast,” Peterson said. “You can’t draw that play up. We couldn’t repeat it if we tried to. I heard from other coaches for at least two weeks. It was a crazy play.”
It’s not unreasonable to think that Parker had some divine intervention. Her late father, James, had a best friend, Johnny Hamilton, who passed away. Soon after James and Parker’s mother, Jill McCullough, found out they were expecting. James wanted to honor his best friend with the name Johnny if it was a boy. It wasn’t.
“My dad asked if they could still name me Jonni,” Parker said. “I always say I have a guardian angel on my back. … I couldn’t ask for a better family (which also includes step-father Steve Peck). I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them.”
Conversation of the play came up again while she was in Alabama helping with the youth camp.
“One of the coaches was telling a story and mentioned the play. I was like, ‘Oh no,’” Parker said. “It’s one of those things where that’s what I try to do all the time. When we do certain drills throwing your body is really important. As long as you throw your body and go after it, the mindset will come to keep doing it.”
Attention is nothing new for Parker. She received plenty of it while being recruited and gave a verbal commitment to play for Ohio State University. But something about the decision didn’t feel right, so Parker re-opened her recruitment. She was playing in a tournament in Kentucky and had coaches watching her from Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State. Those four programs finished 1-2-3-4 in the Big Ten standings in 2016.
“It was like a ‘Whose Who’ of College Volleyball Coaches,” Peterson said. “Every top Big Ten school was after her when she was uncommitted in February.”
Shortly after she selected Penn State.
She’ll be the second Parker to play volleyball in college. Her sister, Paige, played at the College of Wooster. Growing up Jonni was all about softball and basketball, while volleyball was her sister’s thing. Her mom, Jill McCullough, suggested Jonni give it a try, too.
“I fell in love with it,” Parker said.
With the start of school one month away Parker, who has a 3.98 grade-point average, said it’s starting to hit her that this is actually her final year of high school. She said she thinks back to when she was a freshman and how she looked up to the seniors, and those state title teams of 2011 and 2012.
“I was thinking about that just the other day,” Parker said. “Coming my freshman year I was like I’ve got four more years. But it’s gone by so quickly. I’m excited for this season to get rolling and get after it. … I was aware of (the state championships) and those were the girls I looked up to. That was my goal. I wanted to be them eventually. Now it’s kind of cool to come in here and now we are those girls. A lot of my teammates were talking about it at our youth camp and we were thinking we were (youth campers) once. Now we’re teaching them.”