Jessica Howard’s feet are set just behind the three-point line. Fingertips with dark purple nail polish clutch the ball before releasing it into a high arch.
Clank. The shot careens off the backboard to the front of the rim before falling into the hands of the opponent.
On the next possession, she thinks about her father’s advice: “Step out a couple feet if you’ve missed a few.”
Clank. This time it ricochets off the back of the rim. A few moments later, she stands at NBA range.
She’s a full three steps behind the line, and a defender darts out to honor her range. But for Jessica Howard, distance is irrelevant.
“If I’m right on the line, I overshoot,” Howard said. “When I shoot really far out I am not aware of how far it actually is, because I like those shots better. It doesn’t feel like I’m as far out as I am.”
Howard’s natural inclination for distance shooting helped her graduate from Galesburg High School as the state record holder for three-pointers in a season, with 139. She averaged nearly four three-pointers per game and set a school record of 11 in one game.
But in her youth, basketball wasn’t about making threes. It was just about playing the game. While Howard didn’t grow up with a basketball hoop in her driveway, she didn’t have to travel very far to play.
A remnant of the couple’s older son, the in-ground hoop of her neighbors across the street witnessed numerous pick-up games and rounds of Horse with friends, most of which saw Howard come out victorious. According to Howard’s father these soon became everyday occurrences and by the time she hit fifth grade Howard was consumed by the sport.
It was also in fifth grade that she was introduced to the institution that is Galesburg High School girls’ basketball.
From 1988 to 2007, the Silver Streaks failed to win a regional title only once, and they qualified for the state finals seven times. Howard’s fifth grade teacher was the sophomore coach for GHS and planted the seed for what she would become.
“We got to meet some of the players, and we always wanted to go to the games,” she said. “There was an atmosphere of hard work in the program, so I modeled myself after them.”
Though she’s now known for her long-range shooting, Howard entered high school as post player and had to make an adjustment to fit into Galesburg’s press-and-shoot system.
“In junior high, Jessica was about as tall as she is now, so she usually played inside,” said Evan Massey, Galesburg’s head coach. “Her freshman year, we needed a perimeter player and someone who could shoot. She was our best option, so she came off the bench for us.”
“She was an average shooter then,” he said.
At that point, Howard made basketball a year-round effort. With a goal of making 1,000 three-pointers every week, she improved her game through fall and spring open gyms, along with summer camps.
“She probably had Coach Massey in the gym more than he wanted to be,” her father said.
According to Massey, Howard shot so many times over the course of one summer that she developed “tennis elbow,” a painful condition caused by arm muscle overuse, and had to shut things down for a few days.
Everything peaked in her record-setting senior season, when the Streaks finished just one game short of the final four.
At the end of her high school career, some thought the second team All-State selection averaging 16 points per game would have gotten big-time college offers. But Howard’s lack of size for a shooting guard and lack of agility on the defensive end meant there would be no letters from Pat Summit or Geno Auriemmna.
“If you have a healthy view of yourself, there comes a time when you realize where you stand in the athletic world,” Howard said. “I realized [in junior high] I wasn’t going to be in the WNBA. In high school, I had a good career, but going [Division I or II] was never going to happen. It’s not like I was extremely athletic.”
Down to a choice between local options Knox and archrival Monmouth, the decision to commit to the Fighting Scots came out of a “thought that I wanted to get out of Galesburg. I knew it was only 15 minutes away, but it was still going to be something different,” Howard said.
But different ended up as a disappointment. In her freshman year at Monmouth, Howard did not crack the starting lineup, averaging 4.2 points in just over 11 minutes of playing time per game. She became envious of Knox’s diverse academic environment, having stayed in contact with Galesburg friends who decided to stay in town.
“I try to think about my experience at Monmouth as a lesson learned that I shouldn’t procrastinate as much with big decisions,” she said. “I waited until the last minute to decide where I was going. I should have put more thought into it.”
Her parents had pointed Howard toward Monmouth, a mistake that her father ultimately recognized. “I don’t think she was ever happy there,” he said.
While Howard struggled to find her place at Monmouth, the “system” employed by the Silver Streaks had spread from the high school level to Knox’s Memorial Gymnasium. The Prairie Fire women, under the direction of head coach Emily Cline, had switched their style of play and were putting up unprecedented numbers.
Though not identical to the GHS system, it was still a game plan tailored to Howard’s style of play, and before she played Knox for the first time, she had no clue it existed.
In not mentioning to Howard a possible shift to the system , Cline cited a desire to not risk going back on a promise that was not set in stone during Howard’s recruitment.
According to Howard, had Cline made a commitment to playing the up-tempo shoot-first style of play, her initial college decision would have been a no-brainer.
“I wish she would have told me. If I had known they were going to switch to the system I would have definitely come here,” Howard said.
When Howard expressed interest in continuing to play basketball after transferring, Cline pounced on the second chance. Howard suited up for Knox during her sophomore season.
With Howard on the court, the Prairie Fire would rise up to make school history against St. Norbert. Entering a late January weekend in 2013 Knox had met up with the Green Knights 29 times in school history, failing to register a victory in every single one. This time it would be different.
Howard tallied 13 points in the first half behind the support of a raucous crowd filled with alumni homecoming attendees, pushing the Prairie Fire to a 36-30 halftime lead.
From the bench, Cline saw a determined competitor unwilling to give in.
“She basically said, ‘I’m going to shoot no matter what when I’m on the floor,’” Cline said.
Like daggers to the heart Howard released a pair of bullet three-pointers late in the second half, extending the Knox lead to 12. The Prairie Fire never looked back, and Howard finished with a career-high 22 points.
Whether it comes in a historic victory against a conference opponent or a mid-season non-conference matchup against Bethany Lutheran (Howard tied her career best with 22 points against the small Minnesota school), Cline believes Howard should be confident enough to take over a game.
“I wish she’d shoot every time she touches the basketball,” Cline said. “She has the green light. It’s never ‘Don’t shoot the ball.’ I wish she would shoot more.”
Watching the anthropology and sociology major live in a game against Grinnell earlier this season, one would have gotten a sense of both her incredible talent and limited ceiling. Howard hesitated when she drove to the basket. She compensated for a lack of foot speed on defense by constantly going at 150 percent, something that would be unsustainable outside of “the system”.
But given time and space she hit a shot from the NCAA logo that’s easily two and half steps behind the three point line. Minutes later she connected on another bomb to extend the Prairie Fire lead. The crowd paused in anticipation every time she clutched the ball in a set position, but at the end of the game both of the deep threes she pulled the trigger on hit the front of the rim.
Knox came away with a 91-89 victory anyway with Howard finishing with eight points, just fine with her.
“Setting records isn’t the point for her, she wants to win,” her father said.
Just because Howard can hit shots from as far back as she wants, she says shooting for the sake of shooting isn’t the point.
“Your hard work is what is going to make you successful. That’s the only thing in the game you can really control.”