Jesslyn Kuhnel signed a scholarship with St. Andrews University flanked by her mother and father, at right, and her coach, at left. [ PCBeach Memories | Contributed ]
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Local para-athlete signs scholarship with St. Andrews University

In the 1600’s, the French playwright and poet Moliere wrote that “the greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” His statement could certainly ring true for Jesslyn Kuhnel, a Port St. Joe soccer player. 

This past Friday, April 7, Kuhnel signed a soccer scholarship with St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, a member of the Appalachian Athletic Conference in the NAIA. Laurinburg is located about one hour southwest of Fayetteville. 

Friends, family, teammates, and coaches gathered at the Port St. Joe Garden Club last Friday afternoon to watch as Kuhnel signed her scholarship, and to celebrate this accomplishment. 

Eight years ago, the likelihood of her signing a scholarship, or even playing soccer, seemed out of the question due to health issues that began plaguing her in 2015 when she woke up one morning and “couldn’t walk.” 

As reported in the Star on May 5 of last year, Kuhnel endured months of “physical therapy and just working my way up from there.” Horseback riding “really helped my movement and ability to play,” she said. 

And work her way up, she has done. 

In addition to playing varsity soccer at Port St. Joe High School, she earned a position last year on the very first national women’s para soccer team that won the gold medal at the inaugural Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football World Cup for women in Salou, Spain. (See the Star, June 9, 2022) 

Asked why she chose to become a St. Andrews Knight, Kuhnel replied that “I really like the college and everything they had to offer. The vibe there is really good.” 

Jesslyn’s mother, Wendy, echoed that sentiment about St. Andrews, saying that “We felt it when we walked on campus. And the other really cool thing about it is that they have a huge equestrian program, so she’s going to be able to horseback ride as well as play. That way, she will be able to keep up her physical therapy.” 

“The campus is very pretty, and flat, so moving around will be easy,” Wendy added. “The coach was very understanding of her issues, and it just felt like a really good fit for her.” 

Regarding possible playing time her freshman year, Jesslyn said “I’m just gonna let the coaches decide that, and where to put me.” 

Her U-10 coach in Bay County, Robert Hall, drove from West Virginia in order to witness the signing ceremony, and said “people get faced with obstacles, and they try to use them as a crutch. When they get an obstacle, they automatically want somebody to do something for them.”

“She never did that,” Hall said. “Her parents told me what was going on, and I was like, I’m going to let her play. She never quit. She never looked for sympathy. She never pouted. If you could take the kid with all the talent in the world and give them (Jesslyn’s) attitude, there’s no telling how far they could go.” 

Her high school soccer coach, Justin Gerlach, also had high praise for Jesslyn, saying “I am so impressed by all the things that she has already accomplished, and so excited about the things she will accomplish.” 

“She is a great all around young lady, and her signing with St. Andrews is just another part of a great story for a young lady who has overcome so much, yet continues to have a great attitude and drive that you can’t help but admire,” he said. 

“I have been fortunate enough to be just a small part of her story, but happy to have been able to coach her. I am looking forward to what lies ahead for her,” he added. 

Kuhnel intends on earning a degree in game design while at St. Andrews.