Jessica Brown’s eyes lit up with ardent anticipation. Her response ready to launch long before the question had more than a fraction of a second to resonate.
How much do you miss playing?
“I miss it a lot,” she briskly replied. “Watching them play, sometimes I wish I could get out there. There are times when you tell them to do things, and it’s like, ah, let me out there.”
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Less than a year removed from her final collegiate season at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Brown, a 2012 Mt. Vernon High School graduate, admits it’s not always easy suppressing the urge to lace up her sneakers.
After nearly two decades of competitive basketball, the 23-year-old wouldn’t mind turning back the clock, but not necessarily at the expense of the present, where she’s discovered a new outlet as an assistant varsity girls coach at Marion High School.
“There comes that moment when your time is over. I’m obviously at that point, and I’m OK with it,” Brown said.
“It’s nice to kind of take a step back and change that role a little bit. Now, I get to teach what I’ve learned. I really enjoy coaching. I love it.”
Her adoration comes naturally, stemming from an illustrious hoops career, one which netted the former standout point guard a Class 3A state runner-up with the Marauders in 2011-12, a second-place finish in Indiana’s 2012 Miss Basketball race and an Indiana All-Star nod as a high school senior.
At Indiana Wesleyan, her pursuit to win brought more accolades, including the Wildcats’ fifth and sixth Crossroads League championships and four consecutive NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship tournament appearances.
The pinnacle, however, occurred a season after suffering a heartbreaking 42-39 loss to Fort Wayne Concordia at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute during the IHSAA State Finals.
As a freshman playing for Indiana Wesleyan head coach Steve Brooks, Brown and the Wildcats traveled to Sioux City, Iowa in 2013 and returned as NAIA Division II National Champions, the program’s second title in seven years and first since 2007.
“Going from a high school team that was competitive and being able to go to a college team that was competitive as well, that was the main reason I went there. I wanted to be able to win championships,” Brown remarked. “It was amazing being part of a championship mentality and developing friendships that will last a lifetime.”
The hoops bond she formed with 2010 Indiana Miss Basketball Courtney (Moses) Delks is part of the reason her path has carried her full circle.
Named the new head coach for the Giants this season, Delks starred at Oak Hill and led coach Todd Law’s team to consecutive Class 2A state runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2009. The guard moved on to Purdue where she was a four-year starter, a First-Team All-Big Ten selection and the Boilermakers’ all-time leader in 3-pointers and eighth on the career-scoring list.
Yet, before either thrived at the next level, they were dedicated gym rats for Indiana Elite in the AAU circuit as kids, never on the same team but cut from the same cloth.
“The one thing I learned in my career is that coaching is very relational,” Delks said. “You have to build those relationships with the players before you can teach the Xs and Os. Jess is very good at building positive relationships and being a great mentor. She’s always been that way.”
Brown credits most of her sideline skills to playing for Butler assistant women’s basketball coach Julie Shelton at Mt. Vernon, who will be inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame this year.
A catalyst in Shelton’s system, Brown scored 1,276 points in her four seasons at Mt. Vernon en route to becoming the school’s fourth girls player to earn Indiana All-Star recognition while helping the team win its first semistate title since 1977.
“She’s a fantastic coach. I miss her. I still try to keep in contact with her as much as I can,” Brown said of Shelton. “I know she’s doing great at Butler. She was one of my favorite coaches. People ask me if she was mean. I tell them, she held us accountable, and I really respected that of her. She really brought out the best in everybody.
“I hope I can be a great high school coach like she was someday.”
Already on her way, Brown was approached when a girls varsity basketball head coaching position opened at Eastern Hancock this past fall, though nothing came of it, she said.
The timing wasn’t quite right as she had already joined Delks’ staff, but Brown doesn’t regret it, though the idea of returning to her hometown county is appealing for the future.
At Marion, however, she’s more than a coach. She’s making a difference.
Graduating from Indiana Wesleyan with a degree in sports management and business, Brown works as the director of Giant Discovery Zone, an afterschool program designed to inspire grade school students to reach for their goals.
Partnering with the local YMCA in Marion, using their facilities, Brown provides young people with opportunities to explore potential career paths. More importantly, she encourages them to dream.
“Each week we bring in a new activity for them, whether it’s working with the police or fire department, sports, dancing, the arts, a lot of different things,” Brown said. “The purpose is so the kids can find their passion at a young age, and they can have the hope and direction in achieving those dreams and goals and developing that through high school. The main goal is building that character within them.”
On the court, the focus is trust — in the process, in each other and in the results beyond wins and losses.
“It’s a different perspective being a coach. Sometimes you want to get right out there and play, but it’s enjoyable, developing positive relationships with the kids,” said Brown, who is also the head junior varsity coach. “It’s so much more than basketball being able to help develop whatever it is out of them so they can have life skills to go on and be great young ladies.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t still get the itch to put the clipboard down from time to time and hit the court.
“It’s still there,” Brown laughed when referring to her jump shot. “I can knock them down, but I’m still working on it.”
High School: Mt. Vernon
College: Indiana Wesleyan University
Degree: Sports Management & Business
Position: Assistant girls varsity basketball coach, junior varsity head coach, Director of Giant Discovery Zone
Career Accomplishments: 2012 Indiana All-Star; 2012 Indiana Miss Basketball runner-up; 2011-12 IHSAA Class 3A State runner-up; 2011-12 NAIA Division II National Champion; Two-time Crossroads League champion; Scored 1,276 points in four seasons at Mt. Vernon; Posted a team-high 17 points in the 3A State Finals; Scored a career-high 21 points at IWU against Dickinson State on March 10, 2016; Averaged 6.9 points per game, 2.8 assists per game and 3.4 rebounds per game as a senior at IWU.