Tessa Leece’s unassuming rise to the top

12/5/2019 | Feature | By Eden Laase
Eden.Laase@TheUpbeatSports.com

W es Leece can remember his daughter Tessa’s first 3-pointer perfectly.

It wasn’t in a Westwood uniform, rather a homemade jersey for a 3-on-3 team called “The Pink Polka Dots.”

He’s not sure if the 3-point line was legit, or if it was moved in. Tessa was in just second grade, so shooting from that distance wasn’t exactly a high-percentage shot.

You can imagine little Tessa’s excitement when it went in.

The ref threw up his hand to signal “three points,” but Tessa had never seen that before, and she was excited, so why wouldn’t the ref be?

She thought he was asking for a high five and happily gave it to him.

Since then, Tessa has shot — and made — countless 3-pointers. So many, that it’s not really worth a high five anymore. Now, it is expected.

She expects her shots to go in, so do her teammates, and her opponents definitely do.
Neutralizing Tessa is virtually impossible because on the basketball court, there isn’t much she’s not good at.

Her junior year stat line reads: 15.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.1 steals a game. 

It’s not always the case that a player is just as talented on offense as on defense, but Tessa is. 

She has a long, lengthy frame marked with strength and grit that she uses to slash to the basket. She can finish or find an open teammate with skilled decision-making, her 3-ball is a thing of beauty, and she’s as automatic as a self-loading firearm from the free-throw line: unwavering and on-target with each attempt.

On defense, her length is an even bigger factor. The 5-9 senior disrupts passing lanes and intrudes on dribble moves with swift feet and quick hands. 

“She is long, she’s lanky and she reads the floor well,” Westwood coach Kurt Corcoran said. “She anticipates what’s going to happen. Part of the reason she is such a good defender is because she has quick hands. She is able to get deflections and get her hands on a ton of passes, which leads to steals by her other teammates.”

Defense is what she lives on. The thrill of shutting down her opponent is like fresh air after days of being sick in bed. 

She would rather get a goose egg in the scoring column every game this season than score 30 points if it meant holding her opposing assignment scoreless. 

Defense is heart, she says, and she has heart aplenty. 

There is just one caveat to the prior statement. Tessa would rather hold her opponent scoreless than score herself, but only if Westwood wins. Her big heart drives her to defend, and that heart is so big because it houses intense love for her teammates and the sport.

“She cares about her teammates so much,” Wes said. “That is truly how she is. She loves the team more than anything, and she cries at the end of every season because she wishes it would never end. She loves the game of basketball.”

Some people are of the opinion that if you throw around the word love too much, it loses its meaning. But Tessa uses it to excess.

She loves her parents. She loves her sister, Mallory. She loves her teammates. She loves her coach. She loves working out. She loves her school. She loves basketball. 

The word rolls off her tongue with ease and authenticity, making it clear that she means it. Each of her loves is true.  

She’s loved basketball for as long as she can remember. That fondness came about way before her triumphant performance for “The Pink Polka Dots.”

It started in a kitchen. 

Tessa and Mallory had a little hoop they would play on with a foam ball, and their dad challenged them to dribble around the kitchen island.

“We probably started when Tessa was in kindergarten,” Wes said. “They loved it. I would say let’s see if we can dribble around five times with our right hand, and then five times with our left.”

And off the little Leece girls would go, gleefully dribbling around the island like their dad had invented the greatest game.

Eventually, Tessa graduated from the kitchen hoop to a real one. And from a foam ball to a Spalding. She and Mallory scrawled their initials on it with big, black permanent marker. 

When Tessa got ready to attempt her first shot it seemed daunting, and for a moment she missed the comfort of her kitchen hoop and soft ball.

It was a fleeting feeling, one that ended when she saw her T.L. initialed ball go through the hoop.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is my first real shot, I have to make it.’ I was nervous, even though I didn’t have to be,” she said. “But I made it.”

From then on, she’s been devoted to the game. 

It didn’t matter what other girls her age were doing, Tessa had basketball, and that was always her focus. When her peers were out socializing, she often chose to hit the gym instead. Her constant practice sessions helped her become a dynamic player, but they’ve also kept her true to herself.

“Tessa is unique even down to her personality,” Corcoran said. “She has always been independent as far as not needing to conform to all of society’s norms or teenage girl norms. That is one of the reasons she has always been so well-liked. She isn’t worried about being the cool girl.”

Now reader, before you take in the next paragraph, let’s make something clear. Tessa Leece is intelligent. She gets good grades and plans to study pre-med at Michigan Tech, before attending medical school and becoming a nurse anesthetist.

Those are the goals and characteristics of a smart person.

And yet, last season, when Leece was averaging 15.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.1 steals a game, becoming the focal point of every defense she faced, and being recruited by Tech, Leece wasn’t even sure she was good.

Pretty stupid, right?

It’s not because she lacks confidence or doubts herself either. Rather, Tessa’s unintelligence regarding her skills is a rare combination of extreme humbleness and simply not realizing that not everyone can do the things she does on a basketball court.

When her season ended, Leece finally started to get it. 

It took making All-UP Dream Team and being named the All-UP Division 1-3 Player of the Year for Tessa to finally see what everyone else had known for years.

“When I won all the accolades at the end of the season,” she said of finally recognizing her own talent. “I always didn’t want to think I was too good because I always have something to work on. Like, you’re never too good for your sport. But just when I won all those accolades, I felt really accomplished and proud of myself. Because everything that I’ve worked for, I finally got recognition for it. And that was probably when I first realized that like, I’m pretty good.”

Yes Tessa, you are. 

But, of course, after a pause, she adds: “But there are so many things that I can work on and have been working on.”

In all her years of basketball, Tessa has only said something to an opposing player once.

It was in a summer camp, and Westwood was playing a tough opponent. Tessa has a habit of holding her hand above her head and snapping her fingers when she calls out, “I’ve got shooter,” on a free throw. She’s not sure where the little quirk came from, but it’s so engrained that she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. 

But, her opponents in that game noticed.

The player who was guarding Tessa started taunting her when Tessa stepped to the free-throw line, snapping her fingers and encouraging her teammates to do the same. Tessa drilled both free throws, turned around, looked the girl dead in the face and said, “That’s what I thought.”

But a few plays later, it was Tessa who committed the foul, and when her man swished both free throws she responded in kind: “That’s what I thought.”

Tessa never talked trash again. 

“It would have been a lot cooler if she missed,” Tessa said laughing.

She realized chirping to her opponents wasn’t worth her time. She tried it, didn’t like it and decided it was pointless. That’s the first and last trash-talking story you’ll hear about Tessa Leece.

Tessa has devoted all of her time to sports, but someday, she says she might want to try acting. But varsity sports and theater don’t mix, given conflicting practice times, so that is a hobby for the future. 

Yet, talking with Tessa, you can’t help but wonder if she’s already doing a little bit of acting. She has the perfect answer for every question, constantly praising her teammates and coaches, remaining humble and never criticizing her opponents. 

Even when you ask her about specific skills or plays she’s made, Tessa often starts her sentences with, “I don’t want to brag.”

But the longer you spend with the Westwood guard, the suspicion of a facade goes away. Her persona isn’t crafted at all. It’s genuine. Part of it is her natural demeanor, and another part comes from something else, something a lot more painful, stressful and traumatizing. 

One day, after eighth-grade basketball practice, Tessa was playing tag with some friends from her neighborhood. She was on top of an eight-foot ledge when her competitive instinct took over. She had made the jump plenty of times to avoid being tagged, but this time, she slipped and lost her footing.

“I’m so competitive that I am willing to jump from eight feet up,” she said. “But this time, I slipped, and I fell and put both my arms out.”

Tessa didn’t cry. She didn’t scream. She just laid there and waited. She thought the wind had gotten knocked out of her, and that in a few moments she would regain her breath. 

But when she stood up, Tessa looked down and saw both of her wrists hanging limply, like the arms of a worn-out stuffed animal. 

That’s when the tears started. Not because it hurt, but because she was terrified. 

“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball again,” she said. “It was so scary.”

Wes remembers thinking the same thing when he got to the emergency room. But for him and Tessa’s mom, it was almost worse. They didn’t have a blind love for basketball occupying their minds like Tessa did. Instead, they saw their daughter in a hospital bed.

“It was very scary,” he said. “Not just because of basketball, but when I walked into the emergency room, I saw her with her wrists just hanging from her arms.”

The experience was the worst of Tessa’s life, and it came at a terrible time. She was on the verge of finishing middle school and starting high school, and suddenly she was helpless, unable to do anything herself.

She couldn’t brush her own teeth. She couldn’t write or carry anything. She couldn’t bathe herself. 

“I was going through a time where I was changing from a kid into a woman,” she said. “It was not a fun time in my life.”

It was exhausting, embarrassing and most of all, humbling.

“It was eye-opening,” she said. “It changed my life in a good way. Anything can change in a second. It could change for me driving home tonight. A second can change everything, so you’ve got to remain humble and kind, and enjoy everything in life. That’s what I think.”

Recovering from two broken wrists wasn’t easy, especially since Tessa essentially went from playing seventh-grade basketball to varsity basketball after missing out on her eighth-grade season.

Her skills came back gradually, everything was so ingrained in her head that shooting and dribbling became natural once more.

But now, there was something she had never experienced on the court before: Fear.

With every play she carried the same thought in the back of her mind: “If I fall, will I break my wrists again?”

Eventually, that fear subsided, but it changed her.

“Tessa used to be kind of wild on the basketball court,” Wes said. “I think she believed she couldn’t get hurt. After that, I think she knew she was mortal. Things can happen. It was a learning experience.”

Her first year of varsity basketball brought other challenges, too.

She and Madelyn Koski had long been on Corcoran’s radar, and in middle school, when they would attend Saturday morning camps with the varsity players, the two would beat the older girls in nearly every drill.

That created some tension, and by the time Tessa came up to varsity, those feelings had only increased.

“When it was time for them to come up to the varsity as 14-year-old girls, they could sense that animosity and so they were quiet,” Corcoran said. “They never made jokes, they never laughed, they just blended in as well as they possibly could.”

Westwood’s senior class that season didn’t carry the same disgruntled feelings that other girls did, so they took the freshmen under their wings. 

And as time went on, Tessa blossomed. 

She started the season tiny and still looking like a seventh-grader. She came off the bench and played limited minutes, but by the time the season closed, she had worked her way into the starting lineup.

Then, in a game against a dominant Negaunee team, Tessa, and the underdog Patriots gave people a glimpse of the future.

“We took Negaunee to the brink,” Corcoran said. “Tessa hit a 3-pointer with a couple seconds to go to tie the game, and our place was going nuts. It was her first big shot, and it kind of rimmed around, hit the rim a couple of times before it dropped in.”

The Miners ended up winning the game on a buzzer-beater, but Westwood was the team that turned heads.

“We put the Upper Peninsula on notice,” Corcoran said. “People were like, ‘Oh wow, here comes Westwood, and they are only freshmen.’ ”

That sentiment has followed the team for the past three years. When Tessa’s group was sophomores, people remarked of their talent, “Wow, they are only sophomores.” Last year, Westwood didn’t graduate a single senior, and the response was, “Wow, they are only juniors.”

Now, that’s over. This is the last shot. No more “Only.” Now, Tessa, Koski and Karlie Patron are all seniors. And after being eliminated by Lake City in the Division 3 quarterfinals last season, this one comes with urgency.

“A state championship is obviously everyone’s team goal,” Tessa said. “But that is what we have been working on my whole time on varsity. Every year we have gotten a little bit closer, and this year, I think we can really do it.”

That’s not all. Even her declaration of a team goal has a unique Tessa spin to it.

“But, we need to remain humble and work hard,” she said. “You don’t want to have your heads too high, because that is when teams will come for you. We have to give it our all at practice and not have any regrets in our last season for us seniors.”

The finality of this season hasn’t completely hit Tessa yet. All summer she felt like it was just a continuation of her junior season, and even as practices are beginning and games approach, it’s not fully through her head. 

All she knows for sure is that this is her last season at Westwood, and her emotions are mixed.

“It’s really sad,” she said. “But I think it’s a good kind of sad.”

On November 13, Tessa signed her letter of intent to play basketball at Michigan Tech. It could have been her moment. All eyes on her, praising her, celebrating her. 

But Tessa didn’t want her moment. She wanted their moment. Since the time she was a little girl, when she first started playing basketball, she’s done it with Koski. First they were friends, then they were teammates, and now they are more like sisters.

So when the two reached their goals of signing to play college basketball — Tessa at Tech and Madelyn at Ferris State — they did it together. 

“Doing that together was really meaningful to me because we have been through thick and thin together,” Tessa said. “Signing was a significant moment for us. And because we’ve been through everything together, we wanted to do that together, too.”

It was just one of many memories Tessa has created — so far — at Westwood.

It was a small moment, but you can hear the warmth and fondness in Tessa’s voice when she talks about it.

For her, it was the perfect way to declare for Michigan Tech.

She didn’t have a moment in the spotlight, because she didn’t want one.

That’s never been Tessa Leece’s prerogative, and it never will be.

Eden Laase

Co-founder
Eden is a co-founder of Upbeat. She has covered pro sports as a Sports Illustrated intern and chronicled Gonzaga’s Final Four run. Recently, she covered Michigan Tech hockey for the Daily Mining Gazette. Eden graduated from Gonzaga with a degree in journalism.

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