When Ashley Szczepanik was asked if her younger sister Jessica, a senior captain for the Berlin girls basketball team, does anything special to remember their late mom, she replied “I don’t think so, nothing that I’m aware of anyway.”
Even her sister didn’t know how Jess performs a silent tribute to her mom before leaving the house for every game.
“I have pictures and frames over my bed and one of them says ‘Kiss Me Goodnight,’” Jess Szczepanik said. “Before I leave the house, before every game I always touch it and look at it before I go and talk a little bit to her and ask her to watch over me.”
When Jess Szczepanik was a freshman, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn’t like most of the triumphant stories of breast cancer where after the diagnosis, the patient is treated and lives for many years after that first diagnosis. Diane Szczepanik died soon after her diagnosis.
“I remember her freshman year having the whole basketball program sitting in church for the funeral,” Berlin coach Sheila King said. “Sometimes kids don’t make it through stuff like that. Sometimes they are just never the same. But Jess has been great. She is lucky to have a great sister and her dad is amazing. They kept everything together.”
Friday night will be “Senior Night” for the Berlin girls basketball team and it will be emotional for Jess and her family. Diane Szczepanik, who was just 53 when she died, will not be there for her daughter’s last game.
“It’s obviously the most difficult thing I have ever had to go through and was even harder because it all happened so suddenly,” Jess said. “It made me stronger though. It gave me new perspective. If I’m having a bad day or I’m mad at something I think about what she went through and I have a better mindset. It makes me think twice before I say something or do something. I see kids all the time that are not real nice to their parents and they take things for granted. They should be happy they have their whole family. I’m happy that I have a great family and a great dad who supports us. I also try to live life to the fullest and enjoy every single day.”
Larry Szczepanik, the father who kept the girls going, tries never to miss a game and usually daughter Ashley is sitting right next to him.
Thursday night at their usual pasta dinner, the team presented Jess with a shirt. The team had shirts made up so they could all wear them in the pre-game Friday night in the Redcoats home game against Platt. The front says Berlin Basketball with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon running through it. The back says “In Memory of Diane Szczepanik.”
Jess cried when she saw the shirt and was overcome with emotion. She will likely have the same feeling Friday night when the seniors are announced with their families before the game.
King always asks Szczepanik what her dad thought of her performance the day after games.
“There was a recent game where she played really great,” King said with a smile. “I couldn’t wait to see her the next day in practice to ask her what her father thought of how she played. She told me he wasn’t there at the game and she was upset. I told her don’t worry because your mom was there to see you play. She never leaves your heart.”
After not playing much varsity basketball and sitting behind some of the best players Berlin has ever had, Szczepanik has taken advantage of her playing time this year.
“She didn’t play a lot, she sat and watched,” King said. “But as she was watching she was learning every day in practice. You can see it now. We wouldn’t be where we are right now without her. Her character is outstanding. She’s a captain and a leader. She is maximizing her time on the court and has been our most consistent player.”
Berlin is 13-5 after losing three college players, two Division I players and another Division III.
“We beat E.O. Smith early in the year and they haven’t lost since, they only have one loss,” Jess said. “After we beat them we figured we could be pretty good. We started out the season slow but we have been playing so much better lately.
“I didn’t play a lot last year so I want to bring it all this year. People said before the season that we might just be able to make the tournament and disrespected us. It definitely brought the team together. We knew how hard we worked in practice and we knew what were capable of doing so I guess you could say we play with a little chip on our shoulder.”
The Redcoats are ranked 10th in Class L going into Friday night’s game. They could move up to the top eight, which would likely mean one or two home games in the CIAC tournament. If Berlin ventures far into the tournament, another meeting with E.O. Smith could be on the horizon.
But before that, the six Berlin seniors will be honored and Jess Szczepanik will have to get through another emotional moment.
“I know I’ll be emotional seeing her walk out with her family,” King said. “I can’t even imagine what will be going through her mind. I know this though. Once the game starts she’ll be consistent and give us the great effort she has given us all year.”