By CHRIS LARICK
Ironically, the basketball play that Jessica Olmstead remembers the best from her high school years was one in which she had little input.
During the 1999-2000 basketball season the Spartans were in a battle with the Jefferson Falcons for leadership of the Northeastern Conference, a spot the Falcons had controlled for several years. But with Olmstead, then in her junior season, paving the way, those two teams were tied for the league lead when they faced off in Conneaut.
“I remember we were tied with about six seconds left in the game,” Olmstead said. “Kelly Herb passed to Aimee Soller for a last-second layup to win the game.
“The last time we won the NEC was in 1985. Geneva upset Jefferson later in the season so we won (the NEC championship) outright. We knew that going into our last regular season game, so we just needed to take care of business. We had to beat Harbor and we did. Jefferson had been so dominant with Kelly Kapferer and Bekki Hamper. We didn’t have a lot of height that year, but were very guard-oriented.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Conneaut’s win that year is that Soller, not Olmstead, scored the winning basket. Olmstead, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation’s Hall of Fame on April 8, was by far the team’s leading scorer. She finished her career with 1,682 points, second in county history at the time.
Olmstead demonstrated her basketball skills at an early age, participating in the Elks and Knights of Columbus Free Throw Competition.
“My parents (Mike Olmstead and Kathy Hawk) would drive me all over Ohio,” Olmstead remembers.
She also participated in the Conneaut recreational leagues. It wasn’t long before Olmstead and her friends — Char Kudlock, Stefanie Brown and Nikki Sanford — were competing for Conneaut school teams in both basketball and softball.
“When I was in middle school we won the sevnth grade league championship,” she said. “I was one of the shorter players then. I had a growth spurt in the 10th grade, but in middle school I played point guard. When I got to high school I played primarily on the wing. I could be more versatile because I had handled the ball as a point guard.”
Olmstead and her teammates had a connection with their coach, Tom Ritari (already a member of the ACBF’s Hall of Fame) that had begun early.
“I played for him in high school for all four years, but I knew him from summer camps and open gyms. As an incoming freshman I was super shy.”
Shy, but talented. Olmstead started for the varsity that year on a squad that had no seniors and also included Jennifer Johnston, Annie Soller, Jamie Snyder and Erika Loomis. Olmstead averaged 12.7 points a game on a team that finished about the middle of the pack in the NEC. She jacked that up to 16 points per contest as a sophomore. By the time she was a senior, she was averaging 22.9 points a game.
The Conneaut team improved as Olmstead and her teammates matured. Her junior year the Spartans won seven or eight games in a row, beat Jefferson, and clinched the outright championship against Harbor. Her senior year, Conneaut was even better, going 21-3, winning the NEC title outright and advancing to the regionals, the first time in school history that happened.
“We were coming off a (State Division II) softball championship (in 2000). We had momentum and were thirsty for success,” Olmstead said.
But the Spartans had an off-game and lost in the regional basketball semifinals to Avon Lake at Barberton.
“I shot poorly from the field that night. I wish I could have that game back,” Olmstead says. “I remember thinking that I let my teammates and coaches down.”
Then, Conneaut couldn’t duplicate its 2000 softball success despite returning several starters including shutdown pitcher Adrian Tuttle and the keystone double-play combination of Kudlock and Olmstead. “We couldn’t get the key hits we needed that game,” Olmstead says.
Olmstead was recruited by Youngstown State, Bowling Green and Kent State in addition to a lot of Division II schools. She played basketball for three years at Youngstown State before transferring to Mercyhurst University for her senior year.
Playing shooting guard and small forward for the Penguins, Olmstead found herself on a team that was “below .500 my freshman year. It was a struggle.”
Her parents, always supportive, came down for her games, even though she didn’t play much as a freshman. In her sophomore and junior seasons she averaged about 10 points per game. Then after transferring to Mercyhurst (she lost credits in the process), she was injured. She became a student assistant coach, a position that taught her aspects of the game she had never fully appreciated before.
After graduating in 2005, Olmstead became a substitute teacher in the Conneaut area for a few months. Meanwhile, she applied for teaching jobs in the Virginia area because there were more teaching opportunities there. By the following year she had obtained a job teaching fifth grade at McAuliffe Elementary School in Virginia. After four years there, she moved to Graham Park Middle School in Triangle, Virginia (about 25 miles from Washington, D.C.), where she teaches sixth grade social studies, meaning American history. She now has 11 years of teaching in.
From 2008-2017 she was a high school assistant girls varsity basketball coach. This year she switched to coaching boys at the middle school level. She also coaches girls track.
About the only basketball she plays these days is in an instructive capacity, where she can still befuddle her players with her pull-up jumper. She has become a real enthusiast of cross-fit training, and spending hours in the gym.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the support of my parents and brother and sister, along with my extended family,” Olmstead said. “It’s nice to see your parents in the stands every single high-school game. If one of them couldn’t be there, the other one was. I’m very grateful for that. My brother Kyle kept stats and my sister Marissa was only seven at the time, but proudly wore my shooting shirt!"