SHELTON - Shelton High senior mainstay Jess Jayakar fell in love with volleyball in the 8th grade. Her sister Nicole turned her on to the sport; former Gaelette standout Samantha Stevens made it part of her life’s blood.

“Sam Stevens was a senior when I watched her play in middle school, so I never got to play volleyball with her,” said Jayaker, a 3-year starter for coach Leanne Bianchine and an All-SCC second-team selection last year. “She had the same body type as me and I thought, ‘Wow, she is so good’.

“When I got to high school, I got her number (22) and everyone was saying this is the new Sam Stevens. It made me feel part of the Shelton family, and that I had the potential to play like her and to live up to her name. Sam came to a match once and told me she was happy I got No. 22. That was very cool.”

Jayakar, an outside hitter, dedicated improving her game to her sister.

She said: “My sister Nicole kept encouraging me. I have her to thank. I began getting better. I did leagues outside of Shelton volleyball and I found that I always wanted to play volleyball. Now with my friends, I always bring the ball everywhere, so we can play pepper a little bit here and there. Anytime I can play volleyball I take advantage of it.”

A team captain with Clarissa Pierre and Alexandra Capalbo, Jayakar has felt the brunt of her duties.

“It was tough to keep everyone’s spirits up with a month of only conditioning. We are all athletes and we want to get on the court,” she said. “It was especially tough because of what happened for the new freshmen coming in. They spent all this time with us. All they got to do was condition. When they were cut from the team, probably 25 tried out and 10 made it, they had to go home disappointed.”

Dealing with COVID-19 protocols in a new part of the game.

“Everyone dons the mask, and as captains we try to keep everyone on top of washing hands and stuff,” Jayakar said. “No one wants to risk our season. I try and get the lightest mask to wear. The mask gets wet and that makes it hard to breathe. Every timeout, we all separate, take the mask off and drink water (from their own container). You have to do what you have to do. I don’t mind having to play with a mask because you still get to play.”

Jayakar knows there are no guarantees on a full season.

“We have to make it like every match can be our last,” she said. “That is why our Senior Night is Tuesday (Oct. 6), usually for our 8 seniors it is held at our last home game.”

Shelton graduated all but Pierre and Jayakar from last year’s varsity.

“Last season, everyone had played together for so many years. We have a brand-new team. It is hard for us to be a strong team right away,” Jayakar said. “We had a whole month without even having a ball. We are all friends, but it is hard to bond and communicate on the court right away. It is getting better; we just need time to figure it out.”

Getting recruited to play in college considering the circumstances is difficult.

Jayakar said: “This virus will definitely affect recruiting. You can’t really have spectators so it’s not like a college recruiter can come and see you in person. You can send video, but it’s not the same as being there. I’m not trying to go play in college. For other people it will be tough because you are not playing the same number of matches to show your worth.”

Bianchine thinks her new No. 22 is top shelf.

“Jess is great kid, tops in her class. She could be a libero at D-2 if she wanted to play in college. She is a die-hard kid who never gives up. Jess is probably 5-7, maybe 5-8, but hits the ball like she is 6-something. The kid is an animal on the court,” Bianchine said.

“We are making T-shirts that read: ‘When I grow up, I want to be Jess Jayakar.’

“I’m taking the first one. This is what I tell my JV’s: ‘You want to play for me; that is the girl you aspire to be.’”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354