She’s the same on the softball field as she is in honors English – 18-year-old Jessie Bazan, a Whitefish Bay Dominican High School graduating senior, is a leader, said Ben Weiler, her coach and teacher. And that is her greatest strength.
“She will never back down from any challenge and she’s a model for her peers in many aspects of life,” he said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, describing how Jessie’s faith and athletic abilities show through her involvement in softball, basketball and volleyball, as well as in academics and campus ministry.
Those are the same reasons Fr. Bob Wheelock, former chaplain at Dominican, nominated Jessie for the Female Athlete of the Year Award – an award that Sports Faith International gives to “outstanding athletes who are winners on and off the field,” as stated on its Web site.
He heard mention on Relevant Radio one day that nominations for the award were open to high school students, and the deadline was three weeks away.
“I thought, ‘Wow, now this is the chance to honor somebody that I thought deserved it,’ so I called,” Fr. Wheelock said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. He completed the form online and told Jessie about the nomination.
About a month later, Jessie received an unexpected call from Pat McCaskey, co-owner of the Chicago Bears, who began Sports Faith International, to let her know about the award and that she was a semi-finalist for the All Star Catholic High School Sports Hall of Fame.
“It meant a lot just to be nominated,” said Jessie, who also received the Catholic Knights Hometown Heroes Award from Sports Faith International, in cooperation with Catholic Knights, in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “I don’t do things so that I can be recognized for them. (It’s) part of who I am and what I do so it was pretty unexpected because I don’t look for things like that, but it was nice to be able to share my faith with others and maybe if they hear about it, I don’t know if their faith life will be influenced or not, but it was a nice recognition for my school also, because they have a had a lot to do with the person that I am now.”
‘Modest as modest can be’
Though Jessie has won several awards for her athletic prowess – she was second team all conference for softball last year; she was first team all conference in volleyball in the fall and had the highest hitting percentage of 47.2 in the state of Wisconsin as the team’s middle blocker, and the team won regionals; and the basketball team won conference and regionals with a record season of 21-4 – Fr. Wheelock said that she never made a big “fuss” over them because she’s “modest as modest can be.”
“She’s happy when she gets the award and recognition, but she never was somebody to really wear that on her sleeve,” he said.
Fr. Wheelock, who retired in May last year, said that while there are many students who are wonderful people, not all of them get involved as actively as Jessie has during high school. She’s president of her senior class and student council moderator, she leads Kairos retreats (Latin for “God’s Time”) for the juniors, volunteers at St. Ben’s Meal Program, Milwaukee, as well as different grade school summer camps, has played softball and basketball since she was about 8 years old, and volleyball since fifth grade, took four AP classes and was fourth in her class of about 90 seniors, to name a few.
“I said, ‘Boy, it’s neat to have kids like that around because they have a real impact on other kids when they see that,” he said.
Jessie said that leading the Kairos retreats for juniors has had a great impact on her because of the way that they are based on trust, getting closer to each other and God and learning about each other. It’s that kind of sharing and talking that made helping out at St. Ben’s two or three times a year her favorite form of volunteer work.
“I like interacting with the people down there and just talking to them and seeing where they’re coming from,” said Jessie, who plans to study communications studies at Marquette University.
Her activities and volunteer work, especially at St. Ben’s, are not “for show,” said Fr. Wheelock.
“She seemed to be like this was just part of who she was, that she wasn’t doing this to get any credit or to fulfill any service hours or anything such as that – she was doing that because she believes in what she was doing and that came across real clearly to me,” he said.
Same could be said of her twin
Everything he could say about Jessie, Fr. Wheelock said he could also say about her twin brother, Sam, also a graduating senior at Dominican, who is involved in campus ministry and leader of a Kairos retreat with Jessie. Although he’s not as involved in sports, Jessie said her brother is a “really good golfer” at Dominican, and that they share friends as well as their Catholic faith.
“He’s also a very religious person, I think, more so than a lot of people his age – our age,” she said of her brother, who will attend Cardinal Stritch University.
They grew up attending church every Sunday, and witnessed faith lived out by their parents, Peg Flahive and Bill Bazan.
“Both of them really live lives of faith. …” she explained about Flahive, who’s director of communications for the School Sisters of St. Francis, and who worked for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for 21 years, first in social ministry and then department for parishes, and of Bill, vice president of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. “Her job (Flahive’s) is like working for the church and my dad also works for the poor of Milwaukee, trying to get them health care and stuff, and so I’ve taken both of their examples and really tried to live like they do.”
Faith is comfort during tough times
Jessie said she wishes more young people would buy into the spirituality that gets her through rough times, and find the comfort she’s found in her Catholic faith – the comfort that especially helped during her sophomore year when the volleyball coach left on bad terms and the team had no coach until 10 days before the season started.
“That was really difficult – trying to keep all the girls in line and organized and stuff, but (I) just prayed a lot about it and it turned out that we got this coach (Brock Cameron) who’s fantastic and knows a ton about the game and really has helped turn our program around, so I think that’s proof that prayer is really powerful and God is watching out for us,” she said.
Faith and sports complement each other in Jessie’s life, whether it’s praying before games to make sure teammates and opponents do not get injured or just knowing that everything will be OK in the end.
“He (God) just wants you to do your best and that’s actually been really comforting, especially after losses or bad streaks.”
While each of her coaches have had an impact on her life – her volleyball coach instilled within her confidence to know she can achieve success, and she always dreamed of playing in a program like the one her basketball coach, Kevin Schramka, is building – Jessie said Weiler, the only coach she’s had for four years, and with whom she also worked in the classroom, has especially been a role model. From him, she learned to “just get it done and to keep trying when things aren’t going well, that’s his little motto is to get it done no matter what the circumstances are” Jessie said. “You can do it and you just have to keep trying.”
Reputation for being compassionate, kind
Weiler remembers looking forward to working with Jessie, who had established a reputation of being a strong student and a good person before he met her. He described her as the teammate who’s not afraid to carry equipment and who doesn’t put her ego ahead of others.
“That faith is seen through the values that she embodies – she is kind. She’s compassionate. She always participates athletically with a frame of mind that is using the top level of sportsmanship possible,” Weiler said, explaining that it’s no different in bigger things in life like when Jessie insisted “on going to a wake for a woman she never met whose daughter will come to Dominican.”
After four years, Weiler said he’s learned a lot from the 18-year-old whom he described as self-driven with a great work ethic, especially the importance of keeping everything in life, even during a big game, in proportion.
“While that game that we’re in that day is important, there are other things that we need to recognize as being more important, like faith, like values, like remembering that these girls are high school girls and we’re developing people…” he said. “She’s a reminder every day of the value of athletics, the value of academics in the development of the whole person.”
‘Polished young lady’ had lessons for priest
Fr. Wheelock described Jessie as a “polished young lady,” who also taught him something while he was part of Dominican.
“She taught me that you can have somebody who is a very, very fine athlete, who’s very bright, who’s very committed to her faith, who can live in this world and not go swimming with the stream, but to swim against it and I needed to see that,” he said, explaining that so many young kids struggle with the lies of today’s culture that the pope referred to as the “culture of death.” “…that really just screams at them to go out and party hardy and all of that type of thing, (but) that there are those who hear that and say, ‘No. I’m – that’s not who I am and that’s not who I want to be.’”
“I just want to make people happy,” Jessie said of the way she lives her life. “… and just to make them proud or make their lives a little bit better and if I can do anything to put a smile on their face – whatever – because my peers and the adults that I know and classmates, teammates, are really important to me.”
Jessie will soon leave behind her seat in honors English, her position as center on the basketball team and her legacy at Dominican as she looks forward to attending Marquette, getting involved in the retreat programs through campus ministry and playing intramural sports – maybe volleyball, slow-pitch softball or even “more obscure” sports like flag football or kickball. But she knows she’s going to miss the people, competitive sports, atmosphere and comfort she felt within the walls of Dominican.
“Graduation’s going to be pretty bittersweet,” Jessie said, “because these people have really impacted my life.”