Even in kindergarten at Minisink Elementary School, Stefanie Dolson was the one Mrs. DeSimone depended on to help run the classroom.
“I always had fun jobs in school,” Dolson said. “I was the one who got to turn the lights on in the classroom every morning because I was the tallest in kindergarten. And I was also the only one able to open the milk cartons during lunch.”
Word is, she would do it with the perpetual smile that still accompanies her. Understand that this is a young woman who has always sensed life is too short to pout, even on those days when the ball rolls off the rim.
“She really is a very insightful person, and being the baby [the youngest of three girls among four siblings], you might think she'd be a tag-along personality,” said Dolson's mother, Kristal. “But it's not the case. She exhibits everything she's observed from her sisters growing up. She says what's on her mind but is remarkably even-tempered about it. She's funny to be around, so funny to be around. And she is very enjoyable to talk to.”
Of course, she is also an All-America basketball player, one of the greatest centers UConn has had. She has scored 1,299 points for the Huskies and played on multiple USA Basketball teams.
And as she approaches her senior season, at the helm of a defending national champion, that personality, polished by her college experience, is ready to bubble over the edge onto the world's dance floor.
“I can tell you that I don't want this season to end,” Kristal Dolson said. “I am already dreading Senior Night. But I am happy for her. I am also somewhat nervous for her. But she always lands on her feet. I'm glad she realizes she has the capability to be very successful.”
From the small town of Slate, N.Y., Dolson grew, literally and figuratively (she was 9 pounds, 11 ounces at birth) in the clench of older sisters Ashley, 23, and Courtney, 22, and the youngest, brother Jake, 12.
“We'd come home from school and all play together, jump in the leaves during the autumn, bounce on a trampoline,” Stefanie said. “And even to this day, on Christmas Eve we all spend the night together in the same room, all four of us.”
When the girls were little, they were usually dressed similarly by their mother.
“It was so much fun. When we were young, my mom dressed us like we were triplets,” Stefanie said. “If you see any old pictures of us, you'd notice we'd often have the same dress on. We are so close. But we always competed with each other. If a song came on the radio that I especially liked, I would be the only one who could sing it because I considered it my song, not theirs. And they taught me a lot about a lot of things: hair, makeup, life.”
Stefanie ultimately grew to 6 feet by sixth grade. But she also was struggling mightily with her weight, despite taking tap lessons.
“I was a chubby little thing and we'd dance to a song called ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly.' It was terrible, awful,” Dolson said.
“I was just always the tall one. I was also really fat when I was young. So my parents put me right into sports.”
And when she started to play basketball, people began to notice that she was as gifted as she was tall. Once she debuted on the varsity at Minisink Valley High, that talent began to attract visitors to the small town.
“She was a great player from the day she started,” said Yale junior Kyle Cazzetta, the kicker and punter on the Bulldogs football team and a childhood friend of the Dolson girls. “Watching her play in high school, you would notice all the big-time coaches come to town. Pat Summitt was there, and of course we'd always see Geno [Auriemma]. We'd think to ourselves, ‘Wow, this is very impressive.'
“And as a college athlete, I understand coaches often recruit based on potential. You could see how dominating Stef was in high school and how much potential she had to grow. You knew once a coach like Geno got a hold of her that the potential would be immediately realized.”
But there was much more for her to do. The young girl, an extrovert, seemed inherently shy and uncertain. When she visited UConn as a recruit, her outfit was always the same, no matter the weather: basketball shorts, a sweat shirt or T-shirt and brown Ugg boots.
“You wouldn't have been able to tell back then, but I do love clothes,” Dolson said. “I watch every fashion television show I can. But if you looked at pictures of me in high school, you would have never guessed. I didn't care. I wore the same things every day when I was high school.
“I don't know what was wrong with me. I guess I felt like I just had no one to impress. I was friends with everyone, boys and girls. But once I came to college, I felt like I had the freedom to express myself, buy whatever I wanted, be who I wanted, reinvent myself. And I realized how much I enjoyed it. It's fun for me.”
Between her sophomore and junior seasons, Dolson really did reinvent herself.
“There has been a huge change in Stefanie,” teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “I played with her when we were 16. She was Big Stef. She's Littler Stef now. She has turned into the best post in the country. She has set a higher standard for herself. And she has put our team on her back.”
Dolson, now 6-5, did it by devoting that summer to a health and fitness regimen that reshaped her body, her career — and her attitude.
“Stef is very hard-working and very determined on the court, and because of that she is very successful,” Cazzetta said. “But off the court she is one of the nicest, happiest people I have ever met. There is not a person on the bad side of her.
“She has always been the fun and happy girl, the one always dancing and in a good mood. Everyone was always happy to be around her.”
The conservative attire is gone, replaced by a flamboyant, eclectic ensemble that stresses color, style, individualism and makeup.
“I love makeup,” Dolson said.
On American Athletic Conference media day in October, those Uggs were replaced by leopard-skin pumps. Yes, Dolson is now a virtual fashion show.
“Even as a child, she was always accessorizing, but as far as where her fashion sense has come from, I really couldn't tell you. None of my girls was a fashionista,” Kristal Dolson said. “Stefanie was always more of an artist and always comfortable in front of a camera. But I think for Stefanie, it started when she started to feel better about her body before her junior season. That's when she realized how good she looks. It took off from there.”
Now, as she approaches the end of her college career and a future that will include the WNBA, playing overseas and possibly a career in television (she interned this summer with SNY), Dolson, 21, is a package just awaiting its bow.
She still laughs and sings and dances, often spontaneously, but now this is an expression of her personality, not an attempt to disarm the critical thoughts and glares that tall and overweight young girls often must bear.
“Everyone thinks that I am always happy and always extroverted, and I usually am,” Dolson said. “But I do have my ups and downs, just like everyone else in the world. I can be set off very quickly. If someone says something or does something I find irritating, I will still be happy, but I just won't deal with you that day. And I am actually somewhat of a loner when I am not with the team, at my apartment, watching television — “Food Network,” “Glee,” “Project Runway” — or I'm on the computer, listening to music.”
As a result of who she has become, on such a public stage, Dolson is somewhat of an inspiration to others.
“When my daughter, Maggie, was in sixth grade she was already 5-foot-6,” said Vin Cazzetta, father of Kyle and Maggie. “Her middle school was conducting Spirit Week, and during one of the days, they were asked to dress like their favorite celebrity.
“She dressed up like Stefanie.”
These are the things that make Kristal Dolson smile.
“I don't want to say that I didn't think it could happen, but I never even considered what the possibilities might be for her,” Kristal said.