By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
CHELSEA – Emma Hess has spent much of her young life chasing dreams and overcoming odds.
Too young to be involved with the volleyball team? She became a ball girl and manager for the Chelsea High School varsity as a fifth-grader.
Too inexperienced to get a part in a movie? She has been in three movies and moved to California for a year to pursue acting before she decided to return to Chelsea.
Too short to be an outside hitter on the varsity volleyball team? She played on a club volleyball team, took jump training to help elevate her leaping ability and made the Class B all-state team as a junior outside hitter.
Now a senior, the 5-foot-8 Hess is leading Chelsea to another fine season. The Bulldogs are 20-8 and ranked No. 7 in the latest Class B state poll.
Learning the game
Being the daughter of a former setter at Ohio University, Hess was introduced to volleyball at a young age and had the passion to play. Mary Jo Hess, Emma’s mother, was the seventh-grade coach, so Emma had a chance to be manager as a third-grader.
Two years later, she was doing the same thing for Chelsea coach Laura Cleveland’s varsity team.
Cleveland wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the little girl with a big smile when they first met.
“I saw a small little kid, but the biggest thing I saw in Emma – she had a great smile – was that she had a great attitude for learning,” Cleveland said. “When she came in when I was coaching, she would listen to what I was saying, and she would watch the girls and watch the demonstrations and then she would go over and practice it.
“She has a love for the game, and she has an attitude for learning. I think she always had a passion for it since she was little. She made the decision to pursue the passion, and it’s really turned out terrific for her in terms of being able to enjoy playing and playing at a high level because she has put in so much work.”
Hess began playing organized volleyball in the seventh grade, but at the same time she had another dream. After watching several movies on the Disney Channel, Hess told her mother that she wanted to become an actress.
In front of the camera
Sam and Mary Jo Hess listened to their daughter and decided to help her achieve her dream.
“I didn’t they took me seriously, but my mother found me an agent in Michigan, and I got a couple of jobs,” Hess said.
Mary Jo Hess conceded that there was some apprehension about letting Emma pursue acting at such a young age.
“I never would have pursued it for her if I hadn’t gone and seen about getting an agent and heard from some real professionals in the business that were saying, ‘This is really something you should do,’ ” Mary Jo Hess said. “I wanted her to play volleyball since she was a little girl, so when the acting thing came along, I wasn’t expecting that at all.
“We wanted to make sure if this was something she would pursue later, we wanted to know the right people and have her in the right place and make sure she would be taken care of. The worst thing that could have happened is, if we hadn’t done that, when she graduates high school she leaves and you hear about a lot of people who get manipulated.”
In a short amount of time, Hess was able to get three movie credits: “Smooch,” “James and Jenna” and “Home Run Showdown” were filmed in 2011 and 2012. She was credited as Emma-Lee Hess.
“She had a ton of success early,” Mary Jo Hess said. “I had heard a quote that said, ‘It’s typically 45 auditions before you book something,’ and by her fifth audition she had booked something that was a good gig for a commercial.”
Perhaps the largest hurdle of the three movies was landing the role in “Home Run Showdown,” which had more than 1,000 kids audition for parts – and Hess was the only girl on a story surrounding a Little League baseball team. It was filmed mostly in the Michigan towns of Milford and Taylor and also in Toledo, Ohio, and the cast was headlined by recognizable actors Dean Cain and Matthew Lillard.
“It wasn’t really big, but it paid money,” Hess said. “It was an experience, and it was really fun. I spent my whole summer with about 30 guys playing baseball and was the only girl.
“I also did a Hallmark movie called ‘Smooch,’ which plays on Valentine’s Day normally, and I also did a short film called ‘James and Jenna.’ I got to meet some really cool people on that.”
So, in the eighth grade, Hess moved to California to pursue acting, but she soon discovered that the business side of it was extremely tough, and she returned home after a year.
“I really wanted to pursue the TV aspect of it, but there was so much rejection out there, and I guess I wanted to do something where I would be rewarded,” Hess said. “I wanted people to know my name in acting, and because it wasn’t happening at the pace that I wanted, I decided to focus on something else, so volleyball became my motivation.
“Being in a town like this, people know me for the movies a little bit, but being known for volleyball is really important to me. Volleyball became my motivation.”
Above the net
In the ninth grade, Hess returned to Chelsea and returned to volleyball. She made the junior varsity team, but she was an outside hitter and not a setter as her mother had hoped.
“Mom wanted to raise a setter, but she has her daddy’s leaps, so I had to let that go,” said Mary Jo Hess, who is an assistant coach on the varsity. “When she was a freshman and setting on the JV, a short time afterward Coach Cleveland moved her, and that was OK, and of course I defer to her for everything.”
Cleveland saw something special in Hess despite being a few inches shorter than ideal for an outside hitter.
“As a freshman, we tried her as a setter, but then I thought, ‘No, that one’s a hitter,’” Cleveland said. “The thing about volleyball is that height would be great, but really it’s speed, and Emma has speed. If you’re fast and jump well and are faster than the block, those are things you really want.”
Although Hess is able to elevate above the net and delivers some powerful kills, her game is not all about speed and power. She has excellent vision and often will place the ball in a vacant spot on the court with a softer hit for a kill.
“I have a height disadvantage, especially being on the outside where most sets go to,” she said. “I really try to beat people at their own game, so if you’re not going to be on the line, I’m going to shoot it there.
“I try to read beforehand and pick out things that I know they’re not going to be able to pick up. That’s a big part. Being able to tip smart is really important. I have to go up and jump really high, and I use everything I’ve got to get up, and I swing hard. I don’t want them to be able to touch it because that’s the best feeling, getting a kill.”
Hess made varsity as a sophomore, and last year she made all-state as a junior.
“I love hitting a ball that no one touches, and even if there is a block, knowing that at my height and at that disadvantage, to take advantage of another team like that is great,” Hess said. “You get so excited, and the crowd pushes you so much.”
Never satisfied, Hess then set another goal for this season.
“This year, I want to run the defense and have the most kills,” she said.
Cleveland confirmed that the latest challenge is another win for Hess.
“She really is reading well and is in the right positions, and that is one of her biggest assets,” Cleveland said. “That’s both offensively and defensively.”
Hess wants to continue playing volleyball in college and has talked with Ferris State, Northwood and Eastern Michigan. She has a 3.977 grade point average, so academics won’t be a problem. Ambition won’t be a problem, either.
“I definitely want to do something in political and social studies and maybe major in political science,” Hess said. “And then I want to go to law school.”
It might not be wise to bet against her.
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Chelsea's Emma Hess hits during a match this season. (Middle) Hess played a prominent role in the 2012 film "Home Run Showdown." (Below) Hess goes high over the net on a kill attempt. (Photos courtesy of the Hess family.)
VIDEOS: Below are a video of Hess' highlights and also the trailer for "Home Run Showdown." Hess plays the role of Fassi.