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An Elite Basketball Player Morphs Into A Fashionista

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The jubilant smile that seems to be permanently etched on her face as she walks through the University of Connecticut campus is as bright as the lights shining off the hardwood at Gampel Pavilion.

Stefanie Dolson, the outgoing, hardworking senior center, stands out on the UConn women’s basketball team for her athletic skills and for her passion.

On the court, the 6-5 player leads both with her play and her voice. She is one of the main reasons why UConn captured its eighth NCAA championship last year, and is the clear favorite to repeat this season.

Off the court, the communications major is always smiling and keeping those around her laughing. And just as often, it’s Dolson keeping her teammates calm and collected in any situation.

Many students on the Storrs campus know Dolson as the fun-loving, First Night dancing, energetic, stylish athlete. However, when she first came to UConn in the fall of 2010, it was rare to hear her speak or see those bursts of her flashy personality.

“When she first came here, she never spoke, said UConn assistant coach Marisa Moseley. “She wore the same outfit every time: Uggs, a UConn shirt, and a pink T-shirt.  “Now she’s this ultra fashionista.”

Growing up, Dolson was always fairly tall, but because she was never made fun of or bullied about her height, she became comfortable with it. When she was about 12, she began to take on the identity of an athlete, since she played basketball, volleyball, and softball. She knew a majority of the people at school and was exceptionally active.

Dolson said that her identity as the athlete became stronger in high school because she was being recruited. She was simply embracing the athletic image that she had absorbed through her younger years.

Dolson said she never felt the need to wear various outfits and styles during her high school years.

“I grew up with those people, so it’s not that I didn’t have to impress them, but I didn’t care what I wore,” Dolson said.

Once recruiting started to get serious, Dolson narrowed her college choices down to three schools: UConn, Maryland, and Duke. Maryland was actually the first school that extended her an offer, that in the summer before she entered 10th grade. The Terrapins were always on her radar, she said.

Dolson also visited Duke, but ultimately picked UConn.

“Even though it’s Storrs, and it’s boring,” Dolson said with a chuckle, “it’s similar to where I’m from. It reminded me of home,” she said of her home town of Port Jervis, N.J., a small community a few hours outside of New York City.

Dolson verbally committed to UConn on Christmas morning of 2008, her junior year in high school.

“We were making gingerbread people and I decorated mine as a UConn player, and took a picture to send to coach,” Dolson said, as she described how she made her commitment.

Once Dolson arrived at UConn, she knew she wanted to turn over a new leaf and add to her image as an athlete. She understood that she was going to be seen by most people at UConn as a basketball player, but she wanted something different as well, since she said had been viewed as the athlete for most of her life.

“I wanted to recreate myself. I had a very athletic image in high school, and I wanted the opposite in college, since I knew being on the team was a pretty big deal,” Dolson said, adding that she wanted to meet new people and be someone new.

With that self-inspired mindset, UConn’s resident fashionista was born.

Whether it is her vast collection of paisley shirts and pants, or the thick-rimmed glasses she occasionally sports, it is easy to see Dolson in her new image as UConn’s resident fashionista.

As her wardrobe has expanded, so has her vocal presence on the team.

“You know she’s going to come in with some joke, or song that she will be singing,” Moseley said, adding that Dolson is not afraid to open up her singing pipes, even in practice. As far as competition for best singer on the team, there is none.

“Stef definitely takes the crown on that one,” former teammate Caroline Doty said in an interview with UCTV at the start of the team’s 2013-2014 championship season.

Dolson is always involved in conversation, which Moseley said has allowed her to develop the maturity to share her thoughts with her teammates. Dolson embraces that leadership role, but said she was already learning how to be a leader when she arrived at UConn her first year.

“When I was a freshman, I did the same thing but I chose the wrong times,” she said.

When she did speak up, she frequently told a joke at the end of her comment but her coaches pointed out that her credibility was being undercut by a joke.

Dolson said learning when to pick her spots and be that vocal presence became instinctual.
“As I’ve grown, I’ve noticed, you just kind of realize when is the right time,” she said.

Dolson has an extremely tight-knit family, Moseley said, which leads her to value the relationships that she has formed here. Since Dolson puts such value into them, she is extremely aware of those she is close to, although to some people it might seem as if she is guarded about whom she opens up to.

But Dolson also says she is independent and comfortable doing things on her own, which she said, for some people, might seem like she is aloof.

In order to really let her personality flourish, Dolson had to be willing to step out of her comfort zone of being quiet, according to Moseley. At the beginning of her freshman season, she was forced to do just that, as she was faced with the task of replacing Tina Charles, one of the best collegiate players in the country and the number one overall selection in the 2010 WNBA Draft.

Dolson started 36 of the 38 games her freshman year, averaging over 10 points and six rebounds, and has not missed a start in the past two seasons.

And Dolson has excelled at helping her teammates adapt and improve.

During UConn’s run to the national championship last season, Dolson battled through nagging injuries, including a stress fracture of the fibula in her right leg and plantar fasciitis in her left foot. However, she still led the team in rebounding, with an average of 8.2, including 21 total rebounds in the NCAA regionals in Bridgeport. That performance helped her frontcourt partner, Breanna Stewart, break out of her late-season scoring funk and fuel the team offensively.

“She’s grown up and changed her mindset,” head coach Geno Auriemma said, after watching Dolson play through her injuries.

The ability to help her teammates as well as herself can be attributed to her balance of skills on the court and interests in life, Moseley said.

Moseley added that there is so much that Dolson likes and wants to do, from singing, to joking, and even baking, which makes her a better player because of the balance. “She’s like an onion because there’s so many different layers to her,” Moseley said.

Dolson agreed with Moseley’s comparison, joking that Moseley knows her like a book.

“Being that my personality is a lot of different interests, it translates to the court. I know when to pass, when to score, when to get someone open. It helps me see different things on the floor,” Dolson said, adding that she aims to carry that off the court as well to help others, and not just do solely what she needs to do.

Dolson also said that athletes are often too worried about one specific aspect of the game, like passing or scoring, but said she focuses on using those tools and opportunities to help those around her.

Her balance was on display in one of the best performances of her career, against Oregon earlier this season. Dolson notched just the second triple-double in UConn women’s basketball history, finishing the game with 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, leading the Huskies to a 114-68 victory. She was aware of the significance, but stayed humble.

“For me, it’s great. I’m proud, and now it’s over. It doesn’t happen a lot,” Dolson said.

The performance was significant in UConn history, and was also representative of what Dolson means to her team.

When her college career comes to an end after this season, Dolson is prepared to take the next step and play professionally in the WNBA and overseas.

“I could be anywhere, and then in the offseason I’ll go overseas to play. So I just have to get used to being away,” Dolson said about her future.

For now though, Dolson said she is just focused on trying to win another championship and be the best player she can be for her team. It’s a goal shared by those around her.

“She’s our leader on the floor, and her personality is what drives our team,” Auriemma said.
Chris Dugan is a journalism student at the University of Connecticut. He wrote this story for a fall 2013 sportswriting class.