‘A door opened’ for UMass women’s basketball early enrollee Stefanie Kulesza 

  • New UMass women’s basketball freshman Stefanie Kulesza, right, and her father – and high school coach – John Kulesza, left, made a pro-con list about her enrolling early at UMass vs. finishing her senior year at Conrad Schools of Science in Delaware. SAQUAN STIMPSON/SPECIAL TO DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

  • Stefanie Kulesza played her final high school basketball game Jan. 23. She graduated early and enrolled at UMass for the spring semester to join the women’s basketball season a year early. The freshman won’t lose a year of eligibility because of special COVID-19-related exceptions this season. SAQUAN STIMPSON/SPECIAL TO DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2021 2:51:22 PM

Stefanie Kulesza could be chasing another state championship and the Gatorade Delaware Girls Basketball Player of the Year right now. Doing so would allow her to finish her high school career the way most can only dream.

She chose another path, graduating early from the Conrad Schools of Science in Wilmington, Del., and joining the UMass women’s basketball team for the current spring semester. Kulesza signed a National Letter of Intent in November as a member of the Class of 2021, intending to arrive on campus the next fall. 

Then some of her friends and peers in Delaware’s elite basketball circles started leaving for college early. Kulesza, a four-star recruit and one of the top 100 players in the nation according to ESPN, thought it would be cool if she could, too.

“High school’s not how it normally is with COVID, it’s going downhill,” Kulesza said. “What would I gain from staying home?”

Her father – and high school coach – John Kulesza reached out to UMass assistant and Hatfield native Lynne-Ann Kokoski, and asked about the possibility. She initially told him they might have missed the deadline, but a few hours later Kokoski reached out again and asked if Stefanie Kulesza was serious about it. The coaching staff checked with the compliance and athletic departments about the possibility. Kulesza had already met the high school requirements to graduate. It was up to her.

She weighed the competing factors with her family. John Kulesza had to balance his two relationships with his daughter and star player. As a coach, he wanted her to stay at Conrad and chase another state championship. The program won one when she was a freshman playing with her older sister Julie Kulesza, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year and current Bucknell freshman. Delaware canceled last year’s tournament ahead of the final four because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Conrad was the No. 1 seed. The Red Wolves were the state’s top-ranked team and 5-0 this season when she made the decision. Kulesza was averaging 25.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 4.5 steals per game.

“It was not easy. It was bittersweet,” John Kulesza said. “There was no guarantee we were going to have a state tournament. There’s no guarantee she was going to have a graduation or a senior prom.”

As a father, he couldn’t ignore the opportunity for her to get acclimated to her new team and take college courses. She played her final high school game Jan. 23 against Caravel Academy and left four days later for Amherst after her school district allowed her to graduate early.

“A door opened,” John said. “In a normal year, she’d still be in high school.”

John Kulesza drove her up, and she spent the first six days quarantined at the UMass hotel. Then she moved in with teammates Sam Breen and Maeve Donnelly in the North Apartments and started practice and classes.

Stefanie Kulesza practiced with UMass twice before all athletics were were shut down for two weeks earlier this month.

“It’s been crazy, but not as crazy as I thought it was going to be,” she said. “There’s been a lot of people helping me through this transition.”

One is a former foe. UMass freshman Ber’Nyah Mayo is also from Delaware and has been facing off against Kulesza since the sixth grade. They were supposed to play in last year’s state tournament before it was shut down.

“Once I got the news she was coming here it was pure excitement because I know what she’s capable of doing going against her so much,” Mayo said. “It’s water under the bridge, but it’s something you’ll never forget being from Delaware knowing we were always the top players from the state. It’s fun to talk about it and reminisce.”

The Minutewomen participated in individual workouts last week before the pause was lifted, and Kulesza was on the floor this week as UMass prepared for its weekend games against VCU and Richmond – both to be played at Rhode Island.

“It’s definitely a lot better than staying at home. I like having the competition,” Kulesza said. “At home I was dominating everybody. It’s more fun coming into a more competitive environment. I’m learning from them.”

Kulesza has quickly shown she belongs at the Division I level. As a 5-foot-11 guard, she can handle the ball and score from all three levels of the floor. But she’s still supposed to be a senior in high school, so adjusting to the speed of the college game and picking up UMass’ systems will take time.

“She’s been working her way in and adjusting fine. As far as making an impact in the game, coming in and playing for us, she’s a long ways away and that’s not my expectation of her,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said. 

Because of the chaos COVID-19 has wrecked on this college basketball season, participating won’t cost Kulesza a year of eligibility. That made the decision straightforward so she could take the semester to acclimate, even if she doesn’t play much or at all. She’ll be on the bench in uniform for the Minutewomen, supporting her new team and enjoying being one of the rare few watching college basketball in person this season.

“I feel like this is a level I should be at. It’s a little bit earlier than normal but I think I’m transitioning pretty well,” Kulesza said. “I know I’m not going to get in right away and make an impact and I just have to wait my time and prove myself, and I’m OK with that because I knew what I was coming into.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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