Tia Jimerson took a seat in a chair along Ohio’s bench before its match against IUPUI on Sept. 8. She leaned back, curled her jacket’s hood around her head and extended her left leg, which sported a bulky, black medical boot.
Jimerson was nursing a stress fracture in her tibia that she’d sustained one week earlier. As the reigning Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year sat on the bench to watch her team warm up, all she could do was think.
Misery and impatience were knocking on the door to Jimerson’s mind.
But Jimerson never let those feelings intrude her recovery process. When she was sitting on the bench during warmups, she wasn’t thinking about how she was going to miss 11 of Ohio’s 29 regular season matches — valuable time to continue a career that could finish among the best in Ohio history.
She blocked those feelings and channeled her thoughts toward something else: amping up her teammates and bringing even more passion to her team.
When Jimerson watched her team warm up, she was thinking about the bench chants she had made for each teammate before the match. The “Go Big Red” chant for Katie Nelson and her red hair. The “Fore!” golf chant and imaginary swing before a player hammers a serve over the net. Or the “Hercules” chant Jimerson specifically made for Sara Januszewski, the middle blocker who was replacing her in her absence.
Jimerson was only letting her injury affect one thing: her leg. Nothing else.
“We started winning games and started having fun on the bench,” she said. “When you're on the bench, you just see it differently and you see the passion in everybody. It's a completely different point of view. As the weeks went on, I got used to it."
Ohio went a respectable 6-5 in Jimerson’s four-week absence, which started after she was ruled out for the Bobcats’ Sept. 5 match against Marshall. One of the wins was Ohio’s only five-set match win this season, and the Bobcats started MAC play with a 3-1 record, their best four-match stretch this season.
Coach Deane Webb would have much rather had Jimerson in his starting lineup for all 11 matches she missed. Before Jimerson’s injury, she led the team with 60 kills and — alongside Nelson, Jaime Kosiorek and Lizzie Stephens — gave the Bobcats a full front line of players capable of producing powerful attacks.
Webb was forced to dip into his team’s depth to replace Jimerson, but, ever since her return to the court on Oct. 5 against Miami, he hasn’t been able to replace the impact the Sugar Hill, Georgia, native had on Ohio’s bench.
“She was really, really good on the bench during that time,” Webb said. “She was just really driving energy and driving cheers and all that.”
Jimerson needed a way to stay excited for matches she couldn’t play in. She played in all 32 of Ohio’s matches in 2017 and wasn’t used to watching from the sidelines. She needed a way to stay in the match.
So, she joined a meeting with some of her teammates before a few of Ohio’s matches.
The topic was simple: What is the bench going to yell tonight?
"You just sit down, come up with a cheer that sounds good and people like it, and you do it,” Jimerson said.
In each match she sat out, Jimseon stood at the end of the Bobcats’ line of substitutes and brought arguably more energy than any other person in the arena. She was the loudest voice in many of Ohio’s raucous chants. When the Bobcats would swing a service ace, she’d dance down the sideline and swing her boot back and forth.
“I think I did a pretty good job of having energy on the bench, and I just felt like the bench was riled up when I was with them,” she said.
Jimerson’s injury has healed, and she’s played in every set since her return to the lineup Oct. 5. She’s still rebuilding strength in her leg and hasn’t quite rediscovered the full range of motion she had before the injury, but there’s one part of her game that’s remained constant all season: her enthusiasm.
When Jimerson pounds her first kill or block of each match, she usually lets out a roar and thrusts herself toward her teammates in the mid-point huddle. After a kill in the second set of Friday’s win against Western Michigan, Jimerson turned around, pumped her fists and shouted “Let’s f---ing go!”
Ohio will need all the energy it can muster if it wants to clinch a spot for and potentially win the MAC Tournament in November. The Bobcats have six regular-season matches left and will likely solidify a spot in the postseason if they keep a .500 record in those six.
That will be more attainable if Jimerson keeps building her ability and continues her uptick in production. She went from scoring a combined 25 kills in her first three matches back from injury to 34 kills in the next three, and she hit a season-high six blocks last Saturday against Northern Illinois.
Misery is still knocking on the door for each member of Ohio if it fails to miss the MAC Tournament for the first time since 2001. But opportunity is knocking again for Jimerson, too — she has a chance to boost the Bobcats into the tournament and extend what has already been a shortened season for her.
Now that she’s healthy, Jimerson doesn't have to just think about it. She can do something about it.
“I just want to come back,” she said. “I have no doubt that we can still win this tournament."