2017 Donovan Award Winner: Swarthmore’s Tessa Jones

The Swarthmore captain takes home the inaugural Donovan award.

The inaugural Donovan Award goes to Swarthmore War Mothers’ senior captain Tessa “Kirby” Jones.

At just 5’2″ and usually bearing a disarmingly happy-go-lucky smile, Jones does not strike many as an intimidating figure. But once the disc gets checked in, many a defender is intimidated by Jones’ speedy upline cuts. She does not stop there, though: she strikes fear in the hearts of many a mark as she steps out low for a spot-on backhand break.

Jones hails from Newton North, Massachusetts, a town with strong ultimate programs of their own, although Jones did not start playing competitively until her freshman year at Swarthmore. She converted to ultimate from ballet—a background that has given Jones an impressive amount of flexibility, which she successfully uses to step out as a handler. Although she has never attended D-III Nationals, she clearly has had a big impact on both her teammates and her opponents in the Ohio Valley, a highly populated region for D-III.

Swarthmore’s neighbors and rivals, the Haverford & Bryn Mawr Sneetches, noted Jones as a standout player, commenting on her “quick, smart handling.” The Sneetch captains remarked on the highly practiced consistency of her “around backhand and inside flick” and the fact that she has “the fastest pivot that makes it hard to challenge both.”

Jones’ teammates also described her break throws in feedback to Ultiworld and their write-up for her nomination. They described a drill they use to teach rookies how to mark called “Don’t Get Broken by Kirby,” in which every team member does eventually get broken. It is no exaggeration that Jones’ unstoppable breaks and speed makes her “an absolute nightmare to mark,” as her fellow captain Emily Shepard shared with Ultiworld.

However, Jones received the Donovan Award for being much more than just a phenomenal handler. It was how she exemplified strong leadership in her commitment to her personal growth and the growth of others. This year Swarthmore had two captains step down due to injuries and other demands on their time and rostered eight rookies. But Jones refused to be discouraged and instead recognized that with a younger team and in a captaining role, she would have to turn down a couple burners and light up a few others, flexing some different muscles. Zoe Lewis remarked in the All-Region thread for Ohio Valley on how Jones “led a very young team full of rookies with enthusiasm and spirit.”

Part of the reason Jones stayed positive was how her own experience as an underclassmen new to ultimate buoyed her confidence in her young team. At the beginning of her second year, Jones was asked to start handling. As one of three handlers on the team, Jones was given a lot of responsibility early on.

As a player dedicated to self-improvement and determined to learn more, this responsibility was perfect for Jones. Another example of how Jones dedicated herself to improving as a player is found in her commitment to being comfortable laying out. Without any role models on her team to look to, Jones “put in hours to teach herself, staying after practice for an hour or more to get down on the ground again and again. She started by bidding in warmup drills, often hilariously late, to the cheers of the team. But each day that she ended practice with a grass-stained chest and a skinned left elbow she got a little closer.” This story epitomizes the essence of D-III and the Donovan Award. As a smaller and less competitive division, D-III leaves room for players to decide how committed they want to be. This means for a large majority of D-III players, ultimate is their extracurricular activity that they spend a ridiculous amount of time on over the weekends, giving them a community they will keep for life.

Then there are the standouts–all of the Donovan Award nominees included–who decide they want to give this sport and their team everything they got. As the Donovan Award winner, Jones will inspire a whole new generation of DIII players with her focus and dedication.

  1. Marianna Heckendorn
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    Marianna "Banxx" Heckendorn began playing ultimate with Andover High's Golden Gophers. She then encountered the fearsome Claremont Greenshirts and her heart hasn't been the same since. Now living in the women's frisbee capital of the world (Seattle), she's excited to join Ultiworld in increasing D-III Women's coverage. You can reach her by email (mheckendorn00@gmail.com).

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