Former Huron Valley Lakeland basketball standout Jessica Duleba has taken her game from Commerce Township to the Big Apple. Now in her junior season of basketball at Baruch College in New York City, Duleba was recently named the City University of New York Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) Women’s Player of the Year. The award was just the latest step in a journey for Duleba, a former Spinal Column All-Area First-Team member, that took her from a successful career at Lakeland to a rough experience at Adrian College and finally to Manhattan. On Saturday, Feb. 25, Duleba and the Bearcats won the school’s fifth consecutive CUNYAC Tournament championship with a 65-49 victory over Brooklyn College and will next play Rhode Island College in Providence in the first-round of the NCAA Division III Tournament on Friday, March 2. Duleba spoke with the Spinal Column on what it’s like playing and going to school in New York City, and whether or not she has “Linsanity” yet.
Congratulations on being named the City University of New York Athletic Conference Women’s Player of the Year. What does it mean to you to not only have earned such an honor, but to also do so in New York City?
JD: It definitely means a lot to me because I know that most of the greatest players come out of New York City, and for me to come from Michigan and be able to play here and compete with all the players here means a great deal to me.
What is life like for you as a student-athlete in the Big Apple, juggling school and your studies with everything happening in the city? What are some of your favorite activities in the city and places to visit?
JD: It definitely moves a lot faster because of everything here. You have go to class or go to work and then go to practice. I basically find myself on campus at school from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. when my practice finishes. So I have to make sure I’m on top of my school so I can stay eligible and just continue to do well with basketball.
I’m a (Resident Advisor) at the dorms, which we have a group, so that takes a lot of my time, so that’s definitely an addition to doing everything else. Being an RA is a good experience because I got to meet a lot of people coming here since I didn’t really know many people here and it’s a big responsibility, so it’s just a good experience for me.
I basically see the Empire State Building every day from a view, all the major parks. I live minutes away from Central Park and Madison Square Garden. I just love exploring the city and especially living in the lower East Side, that’s one of the best areas to be in.
Yes, I have “Linsanity,” (because of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin). I do really like the Knicks now since the original Pistons broke apart, so I’m definitely for the Knicks.
So far this season, you have averaged 14 points a game and shot .800 from the free-throw line in helping the Baruch Bearcats win the North Division title. To what do you attribute most of your success? Tell us about the chemistry of the Bearcats team as a whole and how critical it has been to Baruch’s strong season.
JD: I would definitely attribute my success to my coaches for pushing me. We have a great coaching staff. There’s like five assistant coaches, and they all help, and then obviously my teammates. We’re a team and we can’t win without everyone’s support and it can be anyone’s night. There’s been players on our team that may score 20 this night and another player may score 20 the next night, so anyone can have a great night.
Our chemistry, it’s funny, because in the very beginning of the year, we started off really well, and then we had a few people quit or drop off and honestly, we were having a real struggle. We hit rock bottom. We lost to two teams which we haven’t lost to in seven years. So, we were definitely going through some differences, but now we’ve picked it up and I think we’re on a seven-game winning streak now and if we didn’t put the pieces back together, then we definitely wouldn’t be where we are right now.
When you graduated from Huron Valley Lakeland in 2009, you originally attended Adrian College and played for its team before transferring. What was your experience like at Adrian and why do you believe it didn’t work out there?
JD: My experience at Adrian was actually not very good at all. At Adrian, I actually only played in 11 games and I don’t believe I played more than two minutes a game in all of those games put together. The coaches there put me down. I didn’t get minutes to play. I would get thrown in the last 30 seconds to play and I just knew that I was better than that.
So I knew that I didn’t want to stay there at all because I knew I was a better player than that, so that’s when one of my old teammates from Lakeland, Megan Bouwens, told me about Baruch College. She actually told me to come visit here because she knew I was a great player and then I just came here and I was given an opportunity to play.
How did you learn about Baruch College and what drew you to the school and its team? How did you feel about going from a small-town setting in Commerce and Adrian to one of the biggest cities in the world?
JD: When I came on my visit here, it was actually the first time I ever visited New York City, as well. So when I first saw how the city works and everything it had to offer, I knew that looking at any other school, I couldn’t really compare it.
And when I came for an open gym to play with all the girls, they were all welcoming to me. When I spoke with the coaches, they told me, “If you need trainers to make you better, we have trainers.”
Our coaching staff is very dedicated to coming in and working on anything you want, so I knew that here I could get better and if I got better then I could definitely play here and then that’s what ended up happening. I started my first game coming here, so it was definitely worthwhile coming here.
(The city) was definitely a shock to me. I knew that I was taking a risk on coming here because you know what they say: “If you can survive in the city, then you can survive anywhere.” And it’s definitely true because things move so fast here and I really thought I became so much more productive coming than what I was doing back home.
(My family and friends) were all very supportive for me. I do wish they could come see more games, but they usually follow live stats back home, any games that are video-taped. I always forward them the games. They understand because I’m doing what’s best for me and that’s what they truly want.
When I first came here, I probably had a week before school started, so I had to figure out which route to get to school because I have to take the train and the bus to school every day. So I would just make sure I would learn one route and then once I got comfortable doing that by myself, then I would find other ways to get to school, but that was definitely one of the hardest things is commuting to classes.
Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates and coaches at Lakeland, and how do you think the current Eagles are doing?
JD: I do keep in contact with a few of the players. My head coach from Lakeland does contact me sometimes to say great game, keep it up, things like that. I’m pretty sure they’ve been doing well. I’ve been on their website a little bit. Lakeland was a great program and when we left, we left it at being us playing at a great point, so I’m pretty sure they kept it going.
What are your ultimate goals for the remainder of your basketball career at Baruch? What is your major and what do you ultimately hope to be doing after graduation? Do you envision returning to Michigan after college?
JD: Well, I definitely want to make it as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament. We went to the tournament last year and got knocked out in the first round, but my goal is to definitely compete further.
I think the furthest Baruch has ever made it is past the second round, so definitely a goal for me, whether it’s this year or next year, is to make it to the third round or even the Final Four and just take it from there. I’m going to do everything I can to get us to that point.
My major is marketing and after graduation, I’m definitely going to see whatever is offered to me. Being here, I definitely have a lot of opportunities because networking really plays hand-in-hand here. But, I would definitely like to see what I could do with basketball first, see if there’s any opportunities for me like that. But for now I’m just trying to finish my degree and see what connections I can make with networking.
(I would definitely look at playing basketball) overseas, my trainers do have some connections there and I would definitely want to start there but I understand that I have much more to do to get a lot better. If I didn’t have any opportunities here, I would obviously return (to Michigan), but I would much rather prefer to stay in the city. If I can have a job and afford to stay here, then I think I could be all set.