Getting back in the game

Jessica Lawson, the starting center on the USF women’s basketball team, had been anxiously awaiting her USF debut for some time. In fact, Lawson had been waiting for the Nov. 13 game against the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats for nearly two years.

Lawson had not played a game since 2005, when she was a freshman at California University. Since then, she has had to sit out two seasons. However, in the first four games of the 2007-2008 season, Lawson looks like she is finding her place in the Bulls’ starting lineup.

“I think it’s exciting to be back, but sometimes I work myself up too much,” Lawson said. “I just wanted to play so much. I’m definitely excited.”

In 2004, as a senior at Jones High School in Edgewood, Lawson had everything going for her. She led her team to the No. 1 ranking in the Orlando Sentinel Super Six. Her team had just won the Florida 4A State Championship. Lawson averaged 20.1 points and 17.2 rebounds per game during that school year.

To go along with a state championship ring, Lawson had many individual awards and accolades to collect. During her junior and senior high school seasons, Lawson was named the Orlando Sentinel’s Player of the Year and made the All-State team. The All-Star Girls Report also named her the No. 118 recruit in the nation.

After high school, Lawson had a choice of some of the best schools from across the nation. USF coach Jose Fernandez remembers trying to recruit her in 2004.

“We recruited her, but she really wanted to go away,” Fernandez said. “In the end, it was between us and them (Cal), and she just wanted to get away from home.”

It seemed like the Bulls’ loss was the Golden Bears’ gain. Lawson saw immediate playing time as a freshman. She scored 11 points in her first collegiate game, and she looked well on her way to having a stellar season.

One person who enjoyed Lawson’s presence was Caren Horstmeyer, the former head coach at Cal.

“Jessica Lawson is an incredible talent. She has both power and finesse, and plays the game with such an amazing passion,” Horstmeyer said. “She brought so much natural talent to the floor with her every single game.”

During her freshman year at Cal, Lawson continued to have a stellar season. Lawson set a then-career-high in points with 19 – which she achieved twice, both against Pacific-10 rival Arizona – and once pulled down a career-high 12 rebounds – again against Arizona.

She finished the season averaging 10.6 points and five rebounds per game. Her scoring average was not only second on the team, but also 14th in the Pac-10, and her five rebounds per game led the team. Lawson’s stellar freshman season came as no surprise to Horstmeyer.

“Jessica was a very tenacious player,” Horstmeyer said. “She had the ability to use her power and play in the post, or she could step out and play the high post game. And whenever you have somebody with as much natural talent and as much passion as Jessica, you have a player with the ability to dominate the paint.”

Off the court, Lawson was able to fit right in with her new team.

“Jessica is a very charismatic person, and she was a lot of fun to be around,” Horstmeyer said. “She was well-liked, and people respected her on and off the court because of her positive attitude.”

After a promising 2004-2005 season, Lawson saw her playing days come to an abrupt halt. During the offseason, Lawson suffered a devastating knee injury in which she tore her left anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and suffered a fractured kneecap.

The injury caused Lawson to miss the entire 2005-2006 season. After that campaign, she decided to be closer to home, and she transferred to USF.

The road to recovery for Lawson would be very trying.

“Our doctors and medical staff felt like Jessica’s knee was not as strong as it needed to be when she came here,” Fernandez said. “Unfortunately, the surgery needed to be

done again.”

If there was any good news in needing a surgery to be performed again, it was that Lawson had to sit out the 2006-2007 season due to NCAA transfer rules, regardless of the knee injury.

The extra year of rehabilitation is showing early benefits for the Bulls. After missing two seasons, Lawson is seemingly in synch with her new team. She scored 16 points in just 18 minutes in a season-opening win against Bethune-Cookman. She also poured in a career-high 23 points, and matched her career-high with 12 rebounds against the Illinois State Redbirds during the USF Best Western Roundball Classic.

Lawson has started all four games for the Bulls this season, and Fernandez is satisfied with what he has seen so far this season.

“I like her versatility. She plays hard, she’s a big body, and she has good footwork,” Fernandez said. “I’m excited about her, and I think that she’s going to continue to get better everyday.”

Lawson is facing a very tough test at the beginning of the season. USF opened its schedule with five games in a seven-day span. That’s a lot of stress to put on a surgically repaired knee, but neither Lawson nor Fernandez feel it has been a problem up to this point.

“I think the schedule is actually a good thing, because it is getting me ready to push through now, early, before we start playing our conference games,” Lawson said. “I think that it’s good because if we need to make adjustments, it’s better to do it early rather than during conference play.”

“I think it’s hard (on her), but for us to be successful in the Big East Conference, we’re going to need her,” Fernandez said. “We’re going to need her play.”

If Lawson can get back to the form she had as a true freshman, Horstmeyer thinks that USF will have a great addition to its new-look lineup.

“Jessica is a player with the ability to be dominant,” Horstmeyer said. “If she comes back healthy, she is really going to help USF. She is one of those players that I felt truly honored to coach.”