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Jessica January: Clutch Cargo

The walls of the gymnasium at Centennial Elementary School in Richfield, Minnesota, are cerulean blue with a horizontal stripe of raw sienna. At the top of one wall is a cargo net that runs from the ceiling to the floor. It was on this cargo net where then-second grader Jessica January was first clutch in her athletic career.

“The students were doing some station work and the physical education teacher called me into the gym to ‘watch this amazing second grader climb the rope ladder,' ” January’s principal at the time and her coach for three years at Richfield HS, Lee Ann Wise, said in recent correspondence. “She wasn’t kidding. Jess climbed the ladder with a time well ahead of everyone else. The gym teacher and I laughed at each other and we said ‘Jess was going to be someone to watch in the future.’ “

And that net eventually led to the following nominations in another sport involving a net before January's senior year at DePaul: John R. Wooden Award Top 25 list; Naismith Trophy Preseason Watch list; Nancy Lieberman Watch list; and Big East Preseason Player of the Year.    

“I started playing basketball in the second grade in the house league with carpet on the floor,” January said in a recent interview. “It was that point in my life that I started to feel competitive about a lot of things in my life; that was when I said 'I want to win at everything.’ “

And bouncing a ball soon became crouching in starting blocks.   

“I had nothing to do during the basketball off season, so my dad suggested track and field to stay in shape,” January said. “I didn't want to straight sprint everyday, so I decided to try the hurdles.”  

And that casual suggestion led to state titles.

The 5-foot-10 January won Minnesota state titles in the 100 meter and 300 meter hurdles and placed third in the long jump as a freshman at Richfield. Her time of 14.29 in the 100 meter hurdles broke a 16-year-old state record. She was also an All-Conference volleyball selection there.  

But as great as January was at running outside at Richfield, it was running indoors that  continued to draw her interest.

January started playing at the varsity level in the seventh grade. She averaged 25.9 ppg as a sophomore. Richfield went to the state tournament twice while January was there, and she finished with 2,663 career points.   

January carries a 3.96 grade point average as a communications major at DePaul. And like her athletic prowess, her academic prowess also started at a young age.  

“I remember driving back with her and her teammates from a tournament in Chicago,” Wise said. “They were exhausted and while the others were sleeping Jess was reading a play for one of her honors classes that had summer requirements.”

Summer eventually portends winter. And winter portends basketball.  

January entered her senior year this season with 1,230 career points. And 13 of those points were part of January's triple-double her junior year, a feat accomplished at DePaul only once prior and only the second time in the past 25 years there.

But there is perhaps no point more important to her, and to DePaul, than the one she scored at the KFC Yum! Center in last season's NCAA tournament.  

January was quoted while she was in high school as saying “there is nothing more nerve-racking that the blocks [in track and field].” And that would apparently include the two free throws she made as a sophomore while at Richfield with 13.2 seconds left to beat Providence Academy.

The KFC YUM Center! in Louisville was filled with a partisan hometown crowd. And it was in that building that January was clutch again. The crowd, sensing an advance by the Cardinals to the Sweet 16, was as raucous as they could be as January stood at the free throw line with 14 seconds left and the score knotted at 72. 

January is soft-spoken and seldom shows emotion while on the court. And that was true when her first free throw barely grazed the rim, sending the partisan crowd to recall, and shout, every kind of hex it could think of.

Montral and Stefanie January both served in the military. And they brought their children up with a strong work ethic. That work ethic, sharpened over the prior years on a basketball court, helped get January to where she stood 15 feet from the basket that Sunday afternoon. They also brought up their children to lead by example. And Jessica January was about to do just that, and without the emotion that the crowd hoped she would have in that situation.    

“I wasn't nervous at all,” January said. “The first free throw was almost an air ball, and with the second one I thought to myself 'put some more on it.’ At that moment the second shot felt like it swished, but when I watched the game afterwards, I saw that it bounced in. I still wasn't as nervous as I used to get before a track meet because in basketball there is so much more room for error [due to the length of the game] where you can make up for those errors. In track you might lose the race due to a bad start.”

DePaul won that game, 73-72, due to a good finish.

January finished that game with 25 points and a team-high eight rebounds from her guard position. She averaged 21.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, and 4.7 apg in DePaul’s NCAA tournament wins against James Madison and Louisville and its loss to Oregon State in the Sweet 16. She was named to the NCAA tournament Dallas All-Regional Team.  

“I wasn't thinking that much during [the three NCAA tournament games],” January said. “I was just kind of out there playing, especially against Louisville. There were so many fans there, and such good energy, it was so much fun. And in the Oregon State game, that was my last game playing with [seniors Chanise Jenkins and Megan Podkowa] and I think it was a testament to having great seniors and you want to do what you can for them.”

“Do what you can for them,” a trait of every leader.   

In 2016 January was selected to represent the Big East at the NCAA Leadership Forum that April. A free throw in a big situation, sure. Talking amongst strangers about the qualities of leadership, not so easy at first.

“It was one of the best experiences I have ever had,” January said. “We had small groups and large groups taught by NCAA staff leaders and they talked about how we could best lead our teammates and how we could best lead ourselves. We also talked about how leadership differs across different Divisions and different sports.” 

“I barely spoke to anyone my freshman year at DePaul. I was very shy and very timid. I started opening up my junior year. I went to the leadership forum thinking 'I want to be social,  but I don't know anybody here.’

“But when the forum started I was raising my hand and wanting to talk and interact with those people. My being able to come out of my shell was a testament to the people that were there and those that led it. I also learned how different people need different ways of being led. In general, I like to lead by example, but some people need to be coached on the side, other people need you to only say positive things. You want to lead the way in the way that people need you to lead.”   

“I tried to take things from that forum and bring them to DePaul and try to best lead our team this year, and obviously its been a little different since I have been on the sideline [with a broken right index finger].”  

And trying her best has resulted in doing great.

“It's very fun to watch players at DePaul grow from timid freshmen to outgoing leaders,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said recently. “And I think Jessica has been a great example of that by being a leader on the floor. On the floor, she was not a great talker until the end of her junior year and the beginning of her senior year.”    

“When I came to DePaul I was playing under [point guards] Chanise Jenkins and Brittany Hrynko," January said. "I did not feel it was my place, and I did not really need to tell Chanise where to position herself. I am also trying to take things that they did and see how they work in the system and translate that into now, where we have freshmen, and I am in more of a needed position to be a leader. It is also a comfortable feeling and you have to earn your respect.” 

January wants to go into broadcasting upon her graduation from DePaul this year. And she got a solid 40-minute dose of that desire when she did color commentary for a DePaul men’s basketball game earlier this season. And as easy as she sometimes makes basketball look by driving the lane and pulling up for her trademark jumper, she learned during that men’s game that basketball can simultaneously look easy and hard.  

“It's harder to be able to articulate the things we do on the court physically and to put all of those movements and actions into concise words,” January said. “It's also easier, since I play basketball, to be able to add meaningful commentary.”

And January has learned about sports broadcasting from two of the best on the women’s collegiate level, LaChina Robinson and Sarah Kustok.

Robinson played at Wake Forest and was among the school’s all-time leaders in rebounds and blocked shots when she finished her career there in 2001. She currently broadcasts women's college basketball for ESPN, Fox Sports 1, and Fox Sports South.

Kustok played at DePaul from 2000-2003, was a three-year co-captain there, and is No. 4 all-time at DePaul for single-season three-point field goal percentage at 44.5.  She is currently a reporter for the YES Network covering the Brooklyn Nets in addition to broadcasting women's college basketball for Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.

“Doing interviews with LaChina and Sarah, and seeing what they do, is something that seems like so much fun, but also a challenge in continuing to learn about basketball and be around other athletes,” January said.

Kustok sees a lot of the leadership traits in January that Kustok had at DePaul.   

“[January} is not forcing herself to be a leader,” Kustok said in a recent interview. “And when you watch a player as a teammate who is genuinely being themselves and competing at such a high level, whether it is in practice or in games, that is the best way to be a leader. I think [January] has that in her vocal leadership and the way she talks to her teammates. And by leading by example she really brings all facets of leadership to the table. And that is not always the case with leaders.”

January recently returned to the court after missing 15 games due to her finger injury. Her line in her first game back, a 77-50 DePaul win over Villanova, was 13 points on 6-9 shooting from the field to go along with four assists and three steals in 24 minutes of play.

Two days later, on DePaul’s Senior Day, January recorded her second career triple-double, and only the third one in DePaul women’s basketball history, with 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Blue Demons’ 79-70 win over Georgetown to secure DePaul’s fourth straight regular season conference title.

From climbing a cargo net as a second grader to climbing the peak in women's college basketball, January has retained and remained this: being clutch.

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