Aubree (Johnson) Chesnut has always been able to balance academics and athletics – during a standout four-sport career at Post Falls High and a decorated four-year run on the Arizona State basketball team that ended with All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007.
Just when her playing days appeared to be over, books and quirky National Junior College Athletic Association rules have brought Chesnut back to the court. Not the basketball court, but the volleyball court, where the 24-year-old is a starting middle blocker for No. 1-ranked North Idaho College (27-5). The Cardinals will try to qualify for nationals this weekend at the Region 18 Tournament hosted by Salt Lake Community College.
How did Chesnut end up on a talented team consisting of players 5-6 years younger than she? Chesnut enjoyed tenures as an assistant coach for the NIC women’s basketball team in 2008 and Seattle Pacific last season, but she decided she wanted to go back to school to become a physician’s assistant. Her husband, Cameron, had completed medical school at the University of Washington and was beginning his residency in Spokane.
“I was in Seattle texting (NIC women’s basketball coaches) Chris and Carey (Carlson), asking Carey about taking chemistry classes and the volleyball thing kind of got brought up,” Chesnut said. “I thought it would be fun, but at first I didn’t think it could happen, because I didn’t think it was allowed. The whole volleyball thing was kind of a joke, and it turned into the real thing.”
NIC officials made certain it was well within the rules.
“It’s because her four years (at Arizona State) were in basketball, a different sport,” Cardinals volleyball coach Chris Kosty said. “The JC level doesn’t have an (eligibility) clock. It’s how many seasons you play.”
Chesnut isn’t a trendsetter. During her season as an NIC assistant coach, Chesnut recalled a College of Eastern Utah basketball player who played one season, married and raised five children and returned to the court in her 30s.
In fact, the Carlsons broached the idea of Chesnut’s older sister, Desiree, a former UW swimmer, returning to the basketball floor.
“They would have taken her in a heartbeat, but she just wasn’t interested,” Chesnut said. “She’s just at a different point in her life. And she didn’t need to take any classes.”
Two years removed from basketball at ASU, the 6-foot-2 Chesnut had stayed active, so her transition to volleyball wasn’t tough from a conditioning standpoint.
“I kind of dove in before I realized what I was getting myself into, but I played a lot of beach volleyball this summer and Chris (Kosty) knew it would be a transition and he was willing to work with me,” said Chesnut, whose last official volleyball match was in 2002 as a high school senior. “I wasn’t super rusty, but I had to get used to the fast pace and six people on the court.”
Chesnut is third on the team in kills, second in blocks and tied for first with a .405 hitting percentage.
“She’s been great,” Kosty said. “Just her maturity and presence, she doesn’t freak out on the court. She’s calm, cool, she takes care of business and her physical capabilities are through the roof.”
So are her academic capabilities. Chesnut was a three-time Pac-10 All-Academic selection. Her long-range plan is to work with her husband. His residency will be at UCLA next year and she plans to pursue P.A. (physician’s assistant) school.
“I’m taking five classes, 20 credits, four labs,” Chesnut said. “I’m here like 12 hours a day most of the time. It’s been a pretty crazy semester. Volleyball helps so much. It’s kind of a nice mental break for me.”
Kosty said he’s been “begging (Chesnut) to come back next year, but she’s pretty determined with what she wants to do.” Chris Carlson said he’s “trying to get her back on our staff, but I just don’t know if it’s possible because she has such a busy schedule. We’d love to have her.”