COLUMBIA – It's easy to see at Stephens College basketball games. There, at the end of the bench, is a bright orange Tennessee Volunteers cap. It seems misplaced, but it isn't. The hat, and the message embroidered on the back, means the world to Stephens junior guard Jessica McConnell.
McConnell was a freshman at Stephens College in 2009. She moved two and a half hours from Edwardsville, Ill., where she had grown up playing basketball beginning when she was about 5 years old.
“I would always play with my dad, outside, just in the driveway," McConnell said. "He’s probably the one who got me into it.”
She was initially drawn to Stephens because the Stars' basketball coach had come to watch her play at Edwardsville. She had also spoken to the Stephens softball coach and was interested in playing for that team, as well.
Andie Young, now one of McConnell’s teammates at Stephens, had been especially interested in recruiting her. Young said the softball coach had been skeptical about whether McConnell would choose to attend Stephens. Young, then a freshman, had faith. She said she saw a lot of herself in McConnell when she came along with the Stephens coach on a visit to Edwardsville. Young had a good feeling.
Although McConnell came from a high school that won frequently, she said she didn’t care that Stephens didn’t have a winning record. To her, the family atmosphere she found at Stephens was the most important.
“I just felt closer. It’s really a family," McConnell said. "I know that’s cliche or whatever, but it really is. It was like a big team of sisters.”
Young was thrilled when she heard McConnell would be attending Stephens, and they grew close when McConnell arrived.
The first year they were teammates, Young struggled with a lot of stress. But she said McConnell was always there to talk to her and didn’t give up on her when she tried to distance herself from her friends. They had started a great friendship.
Then McConnell had to make a tough choice and transfer schools for her sophomore year.
“I got the call Jess was leaving, and I just bawled,” Young said.
McConnell’s father had been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for 13 years, and after things got worse, she wanted to move closer to home to be with her family. She transferred to the University of Illinois-Springfield, just an hour and a half away from home, and continued to play basketball with a new team.
But McConnell spent most weekends that year at home, spending as much time as possible with her family.
When she played at Stephens, McConnell said her parents tried to come to as many games as possible. She could always tell when her dad was in the crowd because of the bright orange Tennessee hat he wore.
“He was a big guy, so you can pick him out anyways, but when he has this bright orange hat on, obviously I could find him,” McConnell said. “If I was frustrated, or I was getting down, I could just look over and could see him and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, get over it,’ and hopefully play better after that.”
In Edwardsville, despite his disease, her father still tried to go to as many games as he could.
“He could be having the worst day and not feel good at all, but he would get someone to drive him to my games since he couldn’t drive,” McConnell said. “I bet you I couldn’t even count on both of my hands how many games he missed.”
In November 2010, McConnell’s father died.
Although his death was a devastating experience, it also showed McConnell how much her Stephens College family loved her. She said teammates, coaches, administration and even the security guard at Stephens expressed their sympathy. Some of her teammates traveled from Columbia to attend the visitation.
In the aftermath of her father’s death, McConnell made the choice to return to Stephens for her junior year. But it was an easy decision, she said, because of the support she had received.
That hat that sits on the bench today didn’t belong to her dad. It was a gift from Young, who bought the hat and had it embroidered with a special message: "Make a Difference."
“He always told me, make a difference. With everything I do, on and off the court,” McConnell said of her father. “It’s like this big saying with all of our friends and family. I even got a tattoo of it.”
When McConnell returned to Stephens this fall, she and Young were back to laughing and joking together at practice like they used to. Young said it was like she wasn’t ever gone.
“With her, it’s always ‘make a difference,’ and I feel like that’s how she plays," Young said. "Go hard and do as much as you can to make that difference, whether it’s two points or 20.”