Tolson continues hoop career
By Ryan Keim
Hesston College women’s basketball coach Jeff Jacobs recruited Essence Tolson two years ago to play for the small college 30 miles north of Wichita, Kan.
Jacobs said he felt the 2017 graduate of Otis High School was very talented. He knew Tolson could be a better player though if she improved her skill set, and she really focused on that part of her game leading up to the season.
“She was an incredible athlete, but she needed a lot of skill work,” Jacobs said. “She just took that on full bore.”
Tolson played in Hesston’s first 15 games during her freshman year. She nearly averaged double figures in points and rebounds as the Larks posted a 7-8 record.
Then during Christmas break, Tolson received some difficult news. She had become ineligible after her first semester.
“It just broke her heart, her teammates’ hearts, and her mother’s heart,” Jacobs said.
Tolson watched from the sideline for the remainder of the season. As if that wasn’t hard enough for her, Hesston struggled without her, losing 11 of its final 15 games.
Tolson didn’t let her ineligibility keep her down and challenged herself to get better grades. She made up roughly 28 credits, and then worked multiple jobs during the summer to offset the gap between her scholarship and cost of college.
Tolson earned her way back to being eligible by her second year at Hesston and according to Jacobs, she did it with a grateful heart.
“I give all credit to her for her remarkable growth,” he stated.
Jacobs added that Tolson’s story is “a lesson for a lot of people. You can overcome the tough odds if you choose to do it.”
Tolson went on to lead Hesston in several statistical categories during her sophomore season, including games played (29 with 26 starts), points (386), steals (54) and blocks (37). She also was the Larks’ top rebounder with nearly four times as many total rebounds as any other teammate.
Tolson’s determination to pull down rebounds helped put her in the Hesston College record books. As a sophomore, she grabbed the most rebounds during a season in school history with 383 and had the second-best average per game with 13.2. Tolson also ranks second all-time in career rebounds (538) and career average (12.5). She has the third-best field goal percentage for a career at 52.9 and stands eighth in school history for a season with 52 percent. Tolson is seventh in career blocks with 52 as well.
Tolson tied Hesston’s single-game record with 28 rebounds against Simpson University at the Redwoods Tournament in Eureka, Calif. Lora Liechty pulled down an identical number during the 1975-76 season.
Jacobs was pushing Tolson really hard that day because the game was close and Hesston needed every rebound it could get. Tolson even sprained her ankle during the game, but after getting her ankle taped she returned to help the Larks get the 55-52 victory.
“She was hobbling a little bit, but still had this fire in her belly,” Jacobs said. “It was like she was saying, ‘I’m getting every rebound.’”
“She was happier about that than the 28 rebounds she got,” Jacobs said. “That is a huge turnaround in how she views life.”
Hesston competes in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, which has two divisions. Tolson’s play earned her a spot on the second team in the KJCCC Division II. She also made the All-Region second team, which consists of players from the KJCCC Division II but is a national honor.
Tolson was offered multiple Division II scholarships and a few Division I schools showed interest in her. She decided to commit to Oklahoma Wesleyan University to further her education and continue playing basketball. Oklahoma Wesleyan, which is an NAIA college, offered her a full scholarship.
Jacobs said getting a good education along with liking her teammates and coaches were two major factors in Tolson’s decision.
“Going to Oklahoma Wesleyan is just a good fit for her,” he stated, adding that the coaches at OKWU believe with Tolson they can reach the national tournament.
Tolson’s teammate at Hesston, Millaya Bray, will be joining her at Oklahoma Wesleyan. Jacobs believes the duo is bound for success.
“With the two of them on that team, they’re going to go places,” he said. “They were my two best players, no doubt.”
Tolson will be making her way to Bartlesville, Okla., soon to compete for the Eagles after playing varsity basketball at Otis and college basketball at Hesston.
Keim, a freelance writer in Wichita, Kansas, grew up in Otis.