A mother knows her child.

A whole continent away, watching her daughter play basketball for Penn at San Diego State on Dec. 30 via a streaming video feed, Marcy Dowhen knew. Her daughter, Jess Knapp, caught a pass in the low post as she’s done thousands of times before. She turned, made one dribble and went up for a jump shot.

But when she landed, unlike all those other times, there was pain. “When the camera zoomed in on her face, I knew right away it was bad,” Dowhen said. “I recognized that look. I’d seen it before.”

Have no regrets. That’s exactly how I want to go out.
-- Jess Knapp

A torn ACL in her right knee cost Knapp her entire freshman season at Penn. Now early in her senior season for the Quakers, Knapp had torn two ligaments in her left knee: the ACL and the MCL. But just as sure as she knew her daughter was hurt watching helplessly in front of that tiny computer screen back home in New Jersey, Dowhen knew her daughter would try to return.

Five games. That’s all Knapp missed. She came back Jan. 27 against Columbia, a huge black brace shoring up her left leg like scaffolding, a defiant testament to her will to finish her senior campaign.

A mother knows her child. When Dowhen was told that Knapp wanted to return and try to complete the season, she gave her blessing.

And she was hardly surprised. “I figured she would do exactly what she’s doing,” Dowhen said. “She’s got amazing courage and strength. She wants it. This is her senior year and she wants to make it the best she can.

“She’s a very dedicated individual. When she goes to do something, she does it thoroughly.”

When Knapp’s doctor, the same one who did the surgery to repair her right ACL back in 2008, told her of the long-term risks of playing on such a serious injury, Jess wasn’t swayed.

When she was hurt as a freshman, Knapp knew she would come back. But as a 5-foot-11 forward playing on no athletic scholarship at an Ivy League school, Knapp knew if she didn’t come back this time her competitive basketball career was over.

Having career-ending surgery at that point would have been like having surgery to cut out a piece of her soul. “I couldn’t just leave something that’s been such a huge part of my life since I was 8,” Knapp said.

“It seems very selfless, but I couldn’t live with not doing it. It’s probably the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.”

On that last point, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin begs to differ. “She works as hard as anyone I’ve had in 17 years of coaching college basketball,” he said.

“She’s selfless. She wants to do what’s best for the team. It’s important to have someone like Jess to establish the culture and the importance of work ethic on your team.”

JESS KNAPP BIO

High School: Four-time first-team all-league. ... Two-time first-team all-county and all-Herald coverage area. ... First-team all-state as a junior. ... Second-team all-state as a senior. ... Scored 1,000 points after just three seasons, graduated as Henry P. Becton Regional’s all-time leading scorer. ... Helped her team become division champion as a freshman. ... Also lettered four years in softball and two years in volleyball. ... Earned numerous all-league and all-county honors in both sports. ... President of school’s chapter of National Honor Society. ... Editor-in-chief of school newspaper. Personal: Daughter of Marcy Dowhen and Joseph Knapp. ... Has one sister, Christina.
Knapp's complete bio

Knapp’s teammates like freshman Katie Allen, who replaced Knapp in the starting lineup when she was injured, have been inspired by their senior captain’s determination. “It shows how much she loves the game,” Allen said. “I just respect her so much. If anything like that ever happened to me I would look back and say, ‘Jess did it. I’ve got to push through and be strong for my teammates, too.’ ”

Knapp worked her way back gradually into the lineup. Eleven minutes against Columbia. Twelve against Cornell. Her third game back, Feb. 3 against Yale, Knapp scored her first points, posting seven points and six rebounds in 14 minutes court time in a 72-60 defeat.

Knapp’s first start was Feb. 10 at Harvard. She played 24 minutes in a 66-52 loss, scoring four points with five rebounds.

Ivy League schools play back-to-back weekend games, so the next night Knapp was back out there at Dartmouth, another overtime game. This time she logged 30 minutes scoring just three points but pulling down a team-high 11 rebounds in the 73-63 victory.

“We just came off a long road trip and I told her to sit out Monday,” McLaughlin said. “She said, ‘No coach, I want to be out here every day.’ ”

McLaughlin echoes Knapp to a certain extent. Coming back is for herself, for her love of the game playing a game just to play a game for no scholarship aid and no hope of parlaying what she’s doing into a professional career.

But there is something else at stake here, too.

“She wants to leave it [Penn basketball] better than she found it and leave a mark on the program,” he said. “She wants to leave a foundation before she moves on. It’s remarkable. This is someone who could have had surgery in January and is graduating in May and would be three-fourths of the way through her rehab. Instead she’s putting off her surgery until April. It’s remarkable for anyone, but especially someone who is about to graduate to have this thought process.”

Though knee injuries couldn’t defeat Knapp, time ultimately will.

Her basketball career is drawing inexorably to an end. Penn plays its final two home games Feb. 24 and 25 in its legendary arena, The Palestra, against Dartmouth and Harvard. Then it’s on the road to Brown and Yale before the Quakers finish March 6 at Princeton, about an hour away from Knapp’s hometown of Carlstadt, N.J.

“It’s approaching pretty quickly,” said Knapp, a psychology major who has already been accepted into the Teach for America program. This fall she expects to be working with disadvantaged children at an inner city Philadelphia school.

At their individual meeting before the season McLauglin told Knapp that he wanted her to walk off the court after her final game and feel fulfilled. To have no regrets.

“That’s the goal,” Knapp said. “It’s bigger than wanting to win the Ivy League or whatever success is. Have no regrets. That’s exactly how I want to go out. You want to feel you did something for the program.”

It’s not the ideal situation, Knapp admits. If you’d asked her before the season how she would want to finish her career, she jokingly said her response wouldn’t have been: “On one leg.”

“But the best I can do is take it and run with it and be grateful for what I was given. I was lucky that I was able to play.”