ABINGDON, Va. — Grace Hess has spent most of her life on a basketball court.
From AAU tournaments across the East Coast to four years of games with the Abingdon Falcons, the 5-foot-9 guard has continually refined her jump shot, ball-handling skills and hoops savvy.
This odyssey began with a simple father-and-daughter outing.
“I can remember that afternoon like it was yesterday,” Hess said. “I was in the third grade, and my dad [Jimmie Hess] asked me to come to the high school gym with him. That was the first time we ever shot together, and I can even remember which goal we used.”
After her first attempt banked off the backboard and through the net, Hess was fascinated.
“We shot for about 15 minutes,” Hess said. “The next day I asked dad if we could go back to the gym. I’ve never really stopped playing since.”
As a senior point guard for the AHS Falcons, Hess averaged 16 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks en route to being named the Bristol Herald Courier girls basketball player of the year.
Hess culminated her first-team VHSL Class 3 prep run by breaking the all-time AHS girls scoring mark, leading the Falcons to the Class 3 final four and signing to play at the United States Air Force Academy.
“In eighth grade, I just had this epiphany that I wanted to be a college basketball player,” Hess said. “I felt that was my best opportunity to make an impact in the world while doing something that I loved.”
During her first and only visit to the sprawling Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Hess said she was struck by the purposeful manner of the students.
“I could just tell by watching the cadets that they had the same mission I had,” Hess said. “The academy is challenging and not for everybody, but it fit my personality well. I love a challenge.”
Hess was recruited by basketball coaches from prestigious institutions such as Yale, West Point and Navy. She received scholarship offers from the likes of Radford and Manhattan College in New York City.
“I took one of my official recruiting visits to Manhattan. I liked the school, but Air Force just has the whole package,” Hess said.
According to her AHS teammates and coaches, Hess has the package of intellect, resolve and skill to not only survive but thrive under the regimented military lifestyle.
“Work ethic is the big thing with Grace,” said Jimmy Brown, who has served as the AHS girls basketball coach the past seven years. “From the court to the classroom, Grace is not afraid to make a commitment. That’s why I can see her succeeding under the demands of the Air Force.”
Taylor Gilbert, another senior star for the Falcons (23-7) this season, competed on the same travel basketball teams with Hess since the sixth grade. The cohesion from multiple spring and summer games was evident the past three seasons as Hess often found Gilbert on deftly delivered entry passes.
“Grace is a great person,” Gilbert said. “It was an honor getting to play with her and to be around her all these years.”
Sophomore guard Emily Breeding admired the dynamic qualities of Hess.
“There’s never a dull moment with Grace,” Breeding said. “Grace is awesome to watch. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to play with such a talented player and leader.”
AHS sophomore Peyton Carter served in an understudy role to Hess this past season.
“Grace is a great role model,” Carter said.
The path to headlines and highlights for Hess began on a travel team coached by her father. Jimmie Hess played basketball at Grundy High School and is a stickler on fundamentals and technique.
“Dad never talks about himself, but I know he had a 40-point game in high school, and I know he was pretty good,” Grace Hess said.
Grace’s big brother, Jake, was a standout quarterback at Abingdon and finished with just under 1,000 points in basketball.
Next came brother Josh, who used quickness and flawless shooting form to set the all-time AHS basketball scoring mark at 1,812 points in 2014.
As a senior, Grace Hess tied a VHSL record with 12 three-pointers in a game. She finished her prep career with just over 1,500 points.
“Breaking the record Josh set was not really a goal,” Grace said. “Josh was such a great shooter and a perfectionist that he would be in the gym until midnight. I like to do different things on the court.”
The backstory for Hess offers insight on the fast-paced lifestyle of sports-minded families and the dedication required to compete in the growing travel ball ranks.
After playing on the team coached by her father, Hess competed with the Spectrum Sports Academy in the seventh grade. She developed her game with the Mountain Empire-based Lady Copperheads team the past few years.
“About the only state on the East Coast I haven’t played in or been to is New Jersey,” Hess said. “That’s the schedule for AAU, and you just have to roll with it if you want to be successful.”
Hess said she has no regrets about her arduous basketball quest. In addition to heavy travel, the AAU routine includes multiple games on the same day and long practice sessions.
“I haven’t had a family vacation since about eighth grade, and I haven’t had a spring off until this year,” Hess said. “As soon as high school season ends, you are at AAU practice the next day, and the season does not end until late July or the fall.
“I will never forget last season when Dee Cvetnich of Wise County Central came to a six-hour practice the day after Central won the state championship. That impressed me.”
According to Melissa Hess, Grace’s mother, the actual starting point for this basketball-mad family was the goal in the driveway.
“The kids spent countless hours shooting on that goal,” Melissa said. “The backboard is broken now, and we hang Christmas lights on the rim, but the kids still shoot in the driveway.”
A 28-year teacher at Abingdon High School, Melissa worked as the official scorekeeper for all AHS basketball games involving her sons and daughter.
“You can’t show emotion at the scorer’s table, but keeping score and watching all the Abingdon athletes has been a wonderful experience,” Melissa said.
Melissa Hess said there were several weekends when she and her husband were forced to travel to different venues to watch their kids compete in AAU tournaments.
“When everybody else was at the beach, we were at a game,” Melissa said. “As a family, we made a commitment to basketball early on, and we stuck to it.”
Grace Hess is scheduled to report to the Air Force Academy on July 17. Until that life-changing day, she plans to soak in the memories.
“Basketball has been very rewarding for me and my family,” Hess said. “Dad and I talked a lot recently about all the hours we’ve put in together on the court and the lifestyle we’ve had.
“My brothers were tough on me growing up, but I had a blueprint from what they accomplished in high school and college athletics. It’s a whole different game now for me at the college level, so it’s time for a new blueprint. I’m ready.”