Rival turned teammate: Ochs finds she fits in perfectly with JSU volleyball

Nov. 2—JACKSONVILLE — How often does a college team honor someone for something they accomplished mostly at a rival school?

It happened Saturday when Jacksonville State's volleyball team took a moment before beating Stetson to shower some appreciation on graduate student Claire Ochs, who recently compiled her 5,000th career set. JSU coach Todd Garvey wrote "5,000+ career assists" on a volleyball, and before the match, he gave it to Ochs.

As the public address announcer told the crowd the details of the ceremony, the Gamecocks' players lined up on either side like a military processional, giving Ochs a path to walk through and meet Garvey, who smiled before playfully tossing the ball to her.

The ceremony was a sweet moment, and Ochs said later she "liked it a lot."

But, she managed 4,236 of those sets at Southeast Missouri, which was an Ohio Valley Conference rival. When she played for SEMO, because both JSU and the Redhawks were good and chased championships against each other.

Now, after four years as one of the SEMO's all-time best volleyball players, she's at Jacksonville State. She appears to have adjusted so well it's as if she's worn Gamecock red and white all her life.

"I think the girls are really easy to get along with, and we've bonded quickly," Ochs said. "I think from my standpoint as a setter, it's my job to fit in easily. Just figuring out what all the hitters want, what they like in their sets. That was my main goal coming in — figuring out how everyone wanted things, trying to blend in seamlessly. So, I'm glad that it looks like that."

A Chesterfield, Mo., native, Ochs spent 2018-21 at SEMO. In 2019, JSU won the OVC regular-season crown, while SEMO won the league tournament. In the 2020 season, which was played in the spring of 2021, JSU won the regular-season crown again, but Morehead State beat the Gamecocks in the conference tournament finals.

After that, JSU left the league, and SEMO won the 2021 regular-season and tournament titles. Ochs was the tournament MVP again and the league's regular-season setter of the year.

Ochs faced JSU four times, with the Gamecocks winning all four. In the 2020-21 season, SEMO went 14-3, with all three losses coming to JSU, including the OVC tournament semifinals.

"The whole first month she was here, I was looking at her in practice like, 'This is just very strange to have her on our side now,'" Garvey said with a laugh. "I always hated having to compete against her because she's so competitive and wants to win so bad. She's such a fiery kind of competitor, but she's such an awesome person to have on your team. That's one of the biggest reasons why we recruited her when we saw she was in the transfer portal."

In the SEMO volleyball media guide, there are a couple of pages devoted to the program's players who are now part of the school's athletics Hall of Fame. It's easy to imagine Ochs might land in that select group one day. She's second in SEMO history in career assists, third in service aces, third in hitting percentage and seventh in digs.

And, of course, she has the championship pedigree.

So, imagine Garvey's surprise when he opened his computer and saw her listed in the transfer portal. And, with her in the lineup, JSU is 20-5, and Ochs has been every bit as good as advertised.

"She's a very hard worker, very coachable, easy to get along with, high volleyball IQ," he said. "So, everything we look for in players, she fits that mold, on and off the court. On the court, she's a very good setter, kind of like a quarterback of the team. She's smart, knows the other team's strengths and weaknesses and our strengths and weaknesses and how to take advantage of those matchups."

So, why did she transfer?

She says part of the reason was that JSU has a beach volleyball program, while SEMO does not. Ochs arrived on campus in January, just after SEMO's indoor volleyball season was over. That allowed her to play the spring beach season at JSU before playing the indoor season this fall and another beach season next spring.

Still, Ochs said that wasn't the only factor.

"I think it was a lot of things," said Ochs, who got her degree in finance at SEMO. "I think the main reason I left is I kind of wanted to maybe challenge myself a little more and see what I could do. I loved that program there and I loved the coaches. I had great friends there, but it was almost like, you know, my time was kind of done.

"I just wanted to see what else was possible. So, I think that's why I left. Also, I wanted to play beach. That was one of the main reasons I left. I never went into the indoor (volleyball transfer) portal. I only went in the beach portal. So, that was my main focus, playing beach."

By getting on campus for the spring semester, that allowed her a chance to get to know her teammates, as many of the indoor players also are part of the beach team.

"Being here in the spring, not only for beach season but then living with some of the girls and already practicing indoor during the spring when we had hours to work indoor," Ochs said. "That helped, also. That kind of gave me a leg up in getting here earlier and bonding with my teammates. So I was ready for the fall."

As for the assists, Ochs is now up to 5,186. To get a sense of how many that is, consider that for the previous four years, JSU had Lexie Libs as its setter, and Libs was a four-time first-team all-conference performer. She was the OVC's setter of the year for the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons. She spent her first season at East Tennessee State before transferring to JSU, and in her five-year career, she had 4,863 assists.

"I was talking to someone the other day, 'I wonder how many times I've set a volleyball in my life?'" Ochs said. "Just to think that I've set a ball 5,000 times for someone to get a kill is kind of crazy."

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.