Ask anyone who knows her best — Jaden Polovina is exceptional.
A 5-foot-9 star setter at Crowley High School (Texas), Polovina has been the heart and soul for an Eagles volleyball team that’s off to a 19-11 start in 2022, amassing a team-leading 844 assists along the way. She’s one of two seniors for Crowley and has been a captain the last two seasons, a credit to the tireless work ethic she brings to everything she does.
But perhaps what makes Jaden most unique are the very hands she uses to set the ball.
Polovina was born with deformities in her hands. She has nine fingers. Her two pointer fingers are bent, neither of her thumbs have joints and her left hand has a middle finger and a ring finger that are conjoined into one.
At a young age, Polovina quickly learned to adapt and was rather oblivious to the fact that her hands were different from everyone else’s.
“I just thought, ‘I’m me,’ and I dealt with it in my own way,” she said. “I’ve never known what it’s like to have 10 fingers, so everything I did, I was just kind of learning like a regular child. With my fingers, it didn’t really bother me much. I just never really paid attention to them.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal because I’ve never known any other way on how to deal with my fingers.”
Polovina was about 7 years old when she first began playing volleyball. Her parents wanted her to be involved in a sport of some sort, so after gauging her interest in softball, soccer, basketball and dance, Polovina began playing volleyball on a YMCA team.
“We were called the Rainbow Ballers, it was the cutest thing ever,” Polovina said. “I was a [defensive specialist] on that team. When you’re 7, you don’t really have a position, but I was a DS.”
By the age of 13, Polovina had been exposed to volleyball only through her YMCA and school teams. One day, a suggestion by her coaches to join a club program piqued her interest. Polovina and her parents were unfamiliar with the club scene, but they found DFW Elite and decided to have her try out. She was in tears when she discovered she’d made the top team as a defensive specialist.
“On the team, we had one setter, and they were like, ‘We need a backup setter,’” Polovina said. “They picked me because I had the second-best hands.
“I was cool with it. I mean, I’ll play whatever position they need me to. That year, I played backup setter. The next year, I played starting setter, and I just kind of kept setting because people needed me to. And then I started to actually love it.”
Polovina was a freshman when she first met Crowley head coach Catherine Bruder. In search of setters for the team, Bruder asked if anybody could set. Polovina raised her hand.
It wasn’t until the Eagles were a little way into the season that Bruder first realized Polovina’s hands were different, when an assistant coach made a comment that they couldn’t understand how she set so well with her hands the way they were.
“We go to games. We do everything, and then after games, referees and coaches are like, ‘Your setter is phenomenal.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, she only has nine fingers,’” Bruder said. “They’re like, ‘What?’ Nobody notices because she’s just so talented. You never notice that there was ever an issue for her.”
Setting certainly required some adjustments on Polovina’s part during her younger years. She had to learn to avoid being called for a double hit because certain fingers would often get in the way. Her super digit, the big finger on her left hand, would sometimes fall into the palm of her hand, or another finger would simply slip because of how it bent.
But over time, she managed to learn her way around the ball.
“I kept doing wall work with the ball — what they call it is wall-balling — and I kept setting,” Polovina said. “I just found a natural feel around the ball with my fingers, and now it’s very rare that I double.
“Something I do now that I didn’t notice, my club coach pointed out, is I’ll drop one of my pinkie fingers on my right hand so that I have four fingers on both hands, so I basically set with eight fingers just to even it out.”
Of course, Polovina has heard it all from those who’d rather tear her down than build her up. Growing up, bullies would call her “alien fingers” or make rude comments about the appearance of her hands, but it never seemed to affect her.
“I can appreciate how nice she is and how kind she is to people and how accepting she is to people, even when I know that people may have not always been that way to her in her earlier life,” Bruder said.
Most people don’t even notice. In fact, some of her teammates — people she’d been playing alongside for more than three years — just found out this year that her right hand was also deformed.
“People don’t tend to notice, but when they do, they’ll usually just ask questions or they won’t say anything,” Polovina said. “If you ask questions and it comes off disrespectful, I’m not really bothered by it. I’m not really bothered by my hands in general. I don’t know why, but I’m just confident in my hands.”
While most of her teammates, coaches and friends have been supportive, Polovina recalls one instance along the way when a trusted adult told her she wouldn’t play in college as a setter and should instead go as a right-side hitter. It didn’t make her sad but instead fueled her desire to prove them wrong.
And she did.
In July, Polovina committed to continue her playing career at the NAIA level with McPherson College in Kansas. During the recruiting phase, she was contacted by head coach Cory Cahill, who invited her to come for a visit and observed as she practiced setting and hitting. When Polovina was done that day, Cahill pulled her aside and offered her a scholarship.
Proud to announce that I’m officially a McPherson Bulldog❤️ I want to first off thank my Mama, Dad, and family who was a part of my recruiting journey & all the coaches that believed in me as a volleyball player🏐 Excited to get to work with THE Coach Cory🤩 Go BULLDOGS🐶 pic.twitter.com/mRzbxkxcjZ— JadenPolovinaVolleyball (@PolovinaJaden) July 18, 2022
Proud to announce that I’m officially a McPherson Bulldog❤️ I want to first off thank my Mama, Dad, and family who was a part of my recruiting journey & all the coaches that believed in me as a volleyball player🏐 Excited to get to work with THE Coach Cory🤩 Go BULLDOGS🐶 pic.twitter.com/mRzbxkxcjZ
Polovina was impressed with the entire McPherson coaching staff and the positivity with which they coached. She also likes that the campus is not too far from Crowley — about a six-hour drive — and that she’ll be able to have some independence.
“I’ve heard that being on big campuses, people start feeling alone because there’s so many people, so I’m choosing the smaller campus life,” said Polovina, who plans to pursue a business degree. “Overall, I have a great coach. I’m going to have a great team.
“Also, the freakin’ McPherson uniforms are so cute.”
For now, though, Polovina is focused on finishing her high school career on a high note, with hopes of getting to the postseason to give her coach the send-off she deserves.
In May 2021, Bruder was diagnosed with cancer. Not wanting to cause her players unwanted stress, she waited before letting them know at the end of the school year. That way, she figured, they had the summer to process it.
Earlier this season, Crowley squared off against Burleson, a rival school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it was the first time an opposing team had shown support for Bruder. There were “Battle For Bruder” shirts that were made, and people brought flowers to lend their support.
Burleson won 3-2 in what Polovina says was “a very emotional game.”
“We were so close,” Polovina said. “I was so distraught after that game because we all wanted to win for her. Everyone was bawling in the locker room beforehand. We were so driven.
“We’re pretty much playing this season for her. It’s all about Bruder, nothing else.”
Bruder has publicly stated that this will be her final season coaching at Crowley, but with six juniors on this year’s roster who don’t want a new coach for their senior year, she’s beginning to consider coming back for one more run.
“I’m really tired, but I also don’t want to possibly ruin their senior year,” said Bruder, who’s in her seventh year as Crowley’s coach. “I definitely don’t want to do it again, however you kind of have to do things you don’t want to do sometimes just to make sure that everybody else is taken care of.”
Polovina will wrap up her prep volleyball career this fall before resuming her role as the starting goalie on the soccer team in the winter. She’s a multi-sport athlete at Crowley who has also been involved with the track and field and cross country teams.
“She wants to play and do everything and be the best at whatever she’s in at the time,” Bruder said. “Really, skill-wise, she’s always coming back and doing things better than what she was before.”
Polovina’s work ethic is what sets her apart as a team captain. Always hustling in practice and never ready to quit, she’s a perfectionist, almost to a fault. But Bruder has seen her mature in that regard over the years, and learn to accept that not everything will always go according to plan.
All the while, Polovina continues to develop as a player and never makes excuses for the hands she’s grown to embrace.
“She’s always been a person who finishes everything,” Bruder said. “She doesn’t cheat at workouts. She doesn’t walk in practice. She’s always trying to be better all the time. She wants to learn. She wants that knowledge. She wants to be challenged.
“She’s basically the ideal athlete.”
Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.