To say that Jacki Gulczynski has been through a lot in her still young life would be a huge understatement.
Gulczynski, a junior at Bartlett High School, has lived through the death of her brother, Lenny, who was killed serving his country in Iraq. She also lived through the lowest point the Bartlett girls basketball program has been through when the Hawks had to forfeit their 2008-09 season over a player eligibility issue.
Yet, through it all, Gulczynski has persevered and prospered.
"What Jacki gives to our team you can't put into words," says Bartlett coach Denise Sarna. "She's dedicated, she's committed and she has the respect of her teammates.
"I think the world of Jacki. She's just a great kid. We've shared some unusual and unfortunate circumstances. She's been there for me and I've tried to be there for her."
On the basketball court, there was none better in the Fox Valley area than Gulczynski this season. In leading Bartlett to a 21-10 season that ended with a tough sectional final loss to Fenwick, she was also named the Upstate Eight Conference Player of the Year, as well as honorable mention Class 4A All-State by The Associated Press. Adding to her list of honors, the 6-foot-1 guard/forward has also been selected as the Honorary Co-Captain of the Daily Herald's All-Area team. She shares the award with senior Chrissy Heine of Hampshire and becomes the third Bartlett girl to earn the accolade, following Lindsay Schrader and Kaci Baird.
This season, Gulczynski averaged 17.8 points per game and 9.2 rebounds, leading her team in both categories. She shot 49 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the free-throw line. She had 12 double-doubles and scored a season and career-high 31 points in a win at South Elgin. She now has 1,270 career points (15.2 per game average) and 735 rebounds (8.7 per game). She is a three-time all-conference selection and a three-time all-area player.
And, she's a three-sport athlete who also plays volleyball and softball while maintaining a 4.39 grade point average on a 4.0 scale.
"People who watch her know how hard she works," said Sarna. "She's a lot tougher than she looks. People try to double and triple-team her and when the game is over, she'll walk in the next morning to say hi and one day she's got a bruise on her cheek and the next day she's got a sprained ankle or a concussion ... and she just continues to play.
"Jacki is a coach's dream. She does everything a coach wants and more."
Gulczynski knew coming into this season there were questions surrounding the Hawks. They had lost a key player from last year's 17-win season to the eligibility issue and they had only one senior on the roster.
"We came into the season with everyone telling us we were a young team but we knew we had a lot of experience," said Gulczynski, who plays for the Rising Stars AAU team. "We had a rocky start and didn't perform as well as we'd have liked to at (the Dundee-Crown Christmas tournament). But after the new year, we started having great team chemistry. We really had that spark going into the (state) tournament and that's what we wanted."
Much of that spark came from Gulczynski, who expanded and elevated her game, seemingly every night.
"She's so long and quick for her size that she was able to step out on the defensive end and create some havoc," said Sarna. "Offensively, we figured why waste her in one position. We wanted to find ways to use her on the perimeter and she showed she had the needed maturity to improve her game.
"Whether she had the ball or not, people had to pay attention to her."
Gulczynski, whose given name by her parents, Bob and Jackie, is Jacqueline, accepted expanding her game as well as taking on the leadership role for the young Hawks.
"Being the upper classman this year, I really wanted to be a leader and get everyone mentally prepared for games," said Gulczynski, who has made unofficial visits to Ball State, Bowling Green, Dayton, Northern Illinois and Illinois State. "If they made mistakes I tried to help them shake it off and not get down.
"My personal goal was to become a more versatile player this year and expand my game from just being the tall post player to being able to come out and shoot the 3 and do it all."
Doing her part to bring Bartlett back together as a team was as important as anything to Gulczynski, who would like to study engineering in college.
"We had a lot of pressure on us to perform better than last year but we knew if we came together and played as one that we could compete with anybody," she said. "It was just a matter of us figuring out that if we played together as a team good things could happen, and the wins started coming."
Gulczynski is in the midst of the recruiting process, which is something that is clearly helping her growth as an individual.
"It's stressful," she said. "You come home to all the letters and the e-mails. But it's also an experience not a lot of players get to enjoy so it's kind of a blessing in disguise."
The personal side of Jacki Gulczynski is as endearing as the basketball side. She holds close her relationship with her family and coaches, and thanks them for their support.
"My parents have been there for me through everything," she said. "And coach Sarna ... I think of her as my second mom. And coach (Brad) Hunt was great this year. I also get a lot of inspiration from my older brother."
Sarna's admiration for Gulczynski goes deep.
"I've been really lucky to coach some great kids," Sarna said. "With everything that's gone on in our lives Jacki and I have formed a great bond. We've had some hard times together that have created some close personal times. When we were at the lowest of lows in our program, Jacki was the one that said 'Hey, I'm with you. Let's go.' "
And go the Hawks did -with Jacki Gulczynski leading the way.
Captains Honor Roll
1995-96 - Melissa Parker and Leslie Schock (Elgin)
1996-97 - Tina Wenckaitis (Elgin)
1997-98 - Billee Russell (Dundee-Crown)
1998-99 - Rita Castans (Streamwood) and Stephanie Smith (Hampshire)
1999-00 - Stephanie Smith (Hampshire) and Chris Rodriguez (Burlington Central)
2000-01 - Kelly Hopkins (St. Edward) and Melissa Tarrant (Dundee-Crown)
2001-02 - Katie Grens (Elgin) and Rachel Markham (Hampshire)
2002-03 - Jenna Real (Burlington Central) and Lindsay Schrader (Bartlett)
2003-04 - Jackie Heine (Hampshire), Lindsay Schrader (Bartlett), Nicole Watzlawick (Hampshire)
2004-05 - Lindsay Schrader (Bartlett) and Amanda Walker (Hampshire)
2005-06 - Kaci Baird (Bartlett) and Brittney Daum (Dundee-Crown)
2006-07 - Katie Chambers (St. Edward) and Meaghan Staley-Gamble (Huntley)
2007-08 - Katie Yohn (St. Edward) and Danielle Smith (Cary-Grove)
2008-09 - Katie Yohn (St. Edward)
2009-10 - Jacki Gulczynski (Bartlett) and Chrissy Heine (Hampshire)