BRIDGEWATER, Va. – Jessica Mullen was playing at a high level during her junior season. She was averaging 18 points per game and the team was playing well heading into the home stretch of the season. With six games left in the season, the Eagles were 13-6 and had won seven out eight games.
Then Mullen’s season came to a screeching half.
“It was a Tuesday practice and I had to stop because I couldn’t quite catch my breath,” Mullen recalls. “I had this strange feeling in my chest.”
A check of Mullen’s vitals was normal. “Everything seemed to be alright,” she said. “We thought it just may be something like acid reflux.”
Now, this wasn’t anything new for Mullen. Despite being a very good athlete and being in pretty good shape, Mullen had always tired easily. Some thought she was anemic, others thought she just didn’t eat enough. There were several explanations, but none proved to be correct.
That weird feeling in her chest came back again, this time while she was sitting in class. “I took my pulse and it felt like it was skipping a beat,” Mullen said. “I texted Ellen (Bridgewater trainer Ellen Hicks) and told her it was my heart.”
Hicks scheduled Mullen for blood work and an EKG.
Mullen finally had an answer, but at the time, it wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear.
“The nurse told me I had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome,” Mullen said.
WPW is a condition that essentially caused her heart to start working at random intervals. “I had heard of the condition so I’m thinking OK, I can deal with this.”
Then, the nurse gave Mullen some news that hit her hard.
“Then she told me I couldn’t play basketball for the rest of the year. I just broke down and cried and cried.”
Without Mullen, the team’s season took a turn for the worse. Bridgewater lost five of its final seven games, finishing with a loss Guilford in the ODAC quarterfinal round.
“The hardest part was not being able to help,” Mullen said of missing the end of her junior season. “It’s tough sitting there and knowing you can’t get out on the court to help your teammates.”
Mullen had surgery to fix the heart condition and was back shooting hoops again in no time.
“I had the procedure on March 5. As far as heart surgery goes, it’s pretty minor,” she said. “I had to stay horizontal for 24 hours and then I had to stay in bed. After three days I could walk and a week and a half later I could start running.”
Mullen came back for her senior year, feeling better than ever. “I could see a big difference. I could play more minutes. I could play a game and practice hard the next day. Back-to-back games used to kill me. When we used to play Friday-Saturday, that second game I was always tired. My legs were heavy.”
Mullen felt good, but was she really better than ever?
Early in the season, she questioned just how well she was playing. “I had some good games, but there were some games where I just didn’t put up good numbers. I’m a mental player and I think I tried to overanalyze things early in the season, trying to figure out what the cause was for me not playing well.
“Really, the difference was we had a different type of team this year. We had two new guards and we had a team where there are a lot of different players who can score. I didn’t have to score big every game. We just had to get used to playing with each other and find our rhythm. I finally realized that I was fine, I didn’t lose anything.”
Fine may be an understatement. Mullen finished the regular season, averaging 16.2 points per game. At Wednesday night’s ODAC banquet, the Bridgewater standout was named to the All-ODAC first team for the third straight time and she was honored by the coaches as the ODAC Player of the Year.
Now, she has one more piece of business to take care of.
Mullen has been to the Salem Civic Center three times and each trip has ended with a loss in the quarterfinals. Goal No. 1 is to get to the semifinals. To accomplish that goal, the Eagles will need to get past Lynchburg this afternoon. The Eagles defeated the Hornets back in November, 52-50.
"Katie (Hottinger) and I haven’t won a tournament game. And, don’t think Coach Willi hasn’t reminded us of that fact. We really want to get that first game,” said Mullen.
If they can get past the opener, Mullen thinks the Eagles have a chance to win a title. A win over Lynchburg would probably set up another game with rival Eastern Mennonite in the semifinal round.
“Eastern Mennonite has a really good team,” Mullen said. “But if we play the way we are capable of playing, I feel like we can play with any team in the conference.”
Regardless of exactly how many games are left, Mullen realizes that the end of her career is indeed coming to a close.
It’s going to be sad,” the Eagles standout admitted. “When I think back on what I have done, I’ll have a lot of good memories. It’s been a lot of fun for sure.”