NewsOvercoming Obstacles - The Journey of Jessi Gates
written by Dave Parsons, Sports Information Director
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - When it comes to perseverance and overcoming obstacles, Mount Vernon Nazarene University women’s soccer player Jessi Gates could easily be the spokesperson.
Gates, a fifth-year senior from Richmond, Ohio, has had her fair share of roadblocks to overcome during her time at MVNU. After being named the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Division II Player of the Year as a senior in 2000 at Edison High School, she decided to attend MVNU because she fell in love with the Christian environment there and liked the fact that it was less than two hours from home. Gates tried out for the Lady Cougars’ soccer team, which had just finished its inaugural varsity season, but she was not offered a scholarship. Despite offers from other colleges, she knew that MVNU was the place where God wanted her to be, and she decided to attend even if it meant not playing soccer.
At the beginning of August prior to her freshman year at MVNU, Gates received a call from Jonathan Meade, the head coach of the women’s soccer team. He informed her that a spot on the team had opened up and asked her if she would still be interested in playing since she was coming to MVNU anyway. She excitedly accepted and began making plans to attend the preseason practices that would start in two weeks.
However as the 2001 season began, Gates had to overcome several injuries just to make it on to the soccer field that fall. She was just getting over viral hepatitis that had caused her to have a seven-day hospital stay in which she lost 20 pounds. She had also just had her wisdom teeth out, and to top that she sprained both ankles.
Despite those challenges, Gates persevered and found her way into 21 of the team’s 23 matches including making one start as the Lady Cougars went 14-9-0 and finished with a 10-6-0 American Mideast Conference mark. She also scored two goals and registered one assist.
In January of her freshman year, Gates, who is a member of the Ohio Army National Guard, was forced to leave school as she was sent to basic training earlier than expected as a result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. After completing basic training, she returned to MVNU in the fall of 2002. After petitioning the NAIA for a military service exemption and missing the first eight matches of the season, she played in the team’s final 15 matches with four starts, and she registered three goals and two assists as the Lady Cougars went 14-8-1.
Then, in February, Gates’ unit was activated and sent to the war in Iraq. From February 12, 2003 to May 5, 2004, she was in Iraq, stationed 60 miles north of Baghdad International Airport. Her unit would make daily trips to the airport picking up supplies or other loads and transporting them back to their camp or other camps as far away as Tikrit or Baquba. Her unit also had tower guard duties watching the perimeter of the camp and provided convoy security for civilians and Iraqis.
There were many close calls on the dangerous road to Baghdad as her unit was constantly on alert for any type of attack. In one three-day stretch, their camp was bombed on consecutive nights and one of their gunners was hit by an explosive device on the road the third day. "I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of a bomb,” said Gates. "However, God really took care of me. On the day of the attack on the road, I was put in a different line-up. The truck that I was supposed to be in was the one in front of the bomb, but instead I was out of harm’s way.”
While Gates was busy serving our country in Iraq, the MVNU women’s soccer team was in the midst of the best season in the program’s brief history. The Lady Cougars posted a 20-3-1 overall record and captured their first AMC South Division crown. The team also capped off the season by winning the National Christian College Athletic Association national title. Through it all, Gates was on her teammates’ minds and in their prayers. Coach Meade would periodically send her care packages from the team, and they would read her letters from Iraq as a group.
After returning from Iraq, Gates began making plans to return to MVNU in the fall of 2004. She stepped right into a starting spot as a defender and proceeded to help the Lady Cougars post 10 shutouts on the way to a 19-5-0 season that included a second straight AMC South title and an NCCAA national runner-up finish. For her efforts, Gates was an NAIA Region IX Honorable Mention selection.
Over the summer, Gates was promoted to the rank of Sergeant after successfully completing the required training. She also had to take several summer school courses in order to be eligible to play in her final soccer season. Now, as she closes out her college career, she looks back and is very thankful for the opportunities and support system that the game of soccer has provided for her.
"My stay on the soccer team has been an amazing experience,” said Gates. "The team has become an extension of my family and they have supported me in all that I have been through. I feel so unworthy of all the blessings and people that God has blessed me with.”
"Soccer itself has been a challenge for me,” Gates added. "I’m not the best at the game, but I will run around and work till I fall over just because I love the game and thank God for letting me be a part of it. I feel extremely honored this year that my team would trust me to be a captain.”
Gates’ leadership, work ethic, and life experiences have made a lasting impression on her teammates and coach. "Jessi is the most amazing person that I’ve ever met,” said freshman midfielder Page Miller. "She is an incredibly hard worker and has made some amazing sacrifices. She treats everyone with respect, and she thinks about important things that most people take for granted. She is the kind of person that I want to become.”
"Jessi adds so much to our team,” said Meade. "She is our inspiration and the one who stokes the fire and gets it turned up even higher. She is persistent, too. With her, setbacks are temporary and then it is back to getting the job done.”
"Often times, we talk about setbacks making us stronger for the next struggle, but I also believe that God has given us a measure of faith to carry us through each trial,” Meade added. "When I think of Jessi and all that she has overcome from sickness, injury, eligibility, and war, the only conclusion I can come to is that God gave her a second helping of faith. She has not learned how to be tough during her journey - she was already blessed with those qualities. Her journey has just brought her strong faith and perseverance to the surface.”
The Lady Cougars are currently 7-3-0 overall and looking to claim their third straight AMC South Division title. With the war in Iraq continuing and National Guard units also being called into active duty to provide relief for the two hurricane disasters along the Gulf Coast, Gates just hopes that she is able to finish out her career with the Lady Cougars. As for her future plans after graduation, she is still undecided as to whether she will stay in the military once her contract is up or whether she might pursue a career in criminal justice on the civilian side. Either way, her work ethic, determination, and faith are sure to carry her through with flying colors.