Fifth year of eligibility proving particularly beneficial for Smith College’s Dashelle Gleissner and Katelyn Pickunka

By HANNAH BEVIS 

Staff Writer 

Published: 03-09-2023 8:42 PM

Back in the spring of 2020, Katelyn Pickunka and Dashelle Gleissner had just reached their first Sweet 16 with the Smith College basketball team. The Pioneers were riding high after winning the program’s first NEWMAC title and cruising through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. 

And then it all came to a screeching halt – the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the remainder of the tournament. The team informed of the decision while they were practicing on the court at Tufts University. Stunned, the Pioneers returned home and the season ended haphazardly, with more questions lingering than answers. 

But for Pickunka and Gleissner, those questions loomed much larger. As the early months of the pandemic stretched out, the two were staying together at Pickunka’s parents house nearby. News broke that the 2020-21 season would be canceled, but the NCAA threw a lifeline to those athletes impacted by the pandemic – one more year of eligibility, to replace the season that was taken from them. 

The two teammates had many conversations, both of them realizing the gravity of the situation. Of course they wanted to return for another year with their teammates, but they had to think about the ramifications of what a fifth year would mean for them academically, too.

Ultimately, it was a decision they had to make together.

“I don't think I would have taken the fifth year if (Pickunka) didn't take the fifth year,” Gleissner said. “When we got back for my senior year, then we started talking a little bit more about it, me and Katelyn realized that it was a possibility that could actually happen, and then we just ran with it.”

It was a lot of work to stay for an extra year – they had to decide what their graduate programs would look like, whether they would write a thesis or not, apply for their programs – but this was also something that, deep down, they knew they had to do. Smith had a host of talented players, from Pickunka and Gleissner to Morgan Morrison, Jessie Ruffner, Amelia Clairmont, Ally Yamada and more. They were fresh off winning a NEWMAC championship and would return nearly all of their players. 

“It was an opportunity that I didn't think I could really pass up. I saw from my first year to my senior year, there was a ton of potential,” Pickunka said. “[Gleissner] and I would have conversations with Coach (Lynn Hersey) being like, ‘If both of us are returning, we have all of this experience, we have all these amazing teammates, coaching, community, all our other staff supporting us – this is something that can be really unique and we could do something really special with it.’”

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The experience and talent that Gleissner and Pickunka brought back has been invaluable for the Pioneers. Beyond being three-time NEWMAC champs and going to the Sweet 16 three times, including this season, both of them are regular starters and are multiple award-winners. Pickunka earned the NEWMAC MVP  this season and was recently named to the All-Region Fourth Team; both players were on the NEWBA All-Regin Second Team last year and Gleissner was also named NEWMAC Defensive Player of the Year for the 2021-22 season. That kind of skill and veteran leadership was something that couldn’t be easily replaced. 

“I think the idea here was they knew we had something special and they wanted another year to see how they could impact that and it's been really pivotal to have such experience, both at the point [guard] position and in the interior... we needed that veteran leadership,” Hersey said. “That was really key for this year… I think it was really a critical piece of the puzzle fitting together for what we're experiencing now.” 

After receiving her undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Pickunka is in a two-year master’s program in exercise science studies, working in a lab, writing a thesis this year and taking classes at UMass. Gleissner is also getting her master’s in ESS, and she’s serving as the Project Coach Fellow, working with the Project Coach organization to orchestrate and lead different events for youth in Springfield.

It’s a juggling act for both of them, but they're also enjoying the ride. After so much uncertainty leading up to this year, it’s been rewarding to see that their hard work has paid off. 

“I think it's kind of surreal just because I didn't think I'd still be here. And I am glad that me and KP took the fifth year because the team is very successful this year and it seems like everything is just falling into its place,” Gleissner said. “I appreciate the season way more than I thought I would because I know that this is going to be my last season… for this to actually be the final season of my college career, it's giving me mixed emotions for sure. Overall, it's a pretty fun environment to be at, especially being here at Smith and around the team. They're definitely a second family to me.”

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