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Drew Ellis covers Oakland University basketball for The Oakland Press. His news and notes keep you up to date with Golden Grizzlies men's basketball.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Say Auf Wiedersehen to Melissa Jeltema

(My feature story in the Sunday Oakland Press)
By PAUL KAMPE
Of The Oakland Press
Former Oakland captain Melissa Jeltema recently graduated from the school, and she’s already got her first job out of college. The career starter is overseas, but she isn’t taking over an outsourced position. Jeltema joined a handful of Oakland players to play professionally in the recent past, signing to play with Chemnitz Chemcats, a women’s professional team in Germany.
“I’m really excited. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’m happy it’s going to happen,” Jeltema said.
Since her May commencement, Jeltema’s been completing work for her degree already in hand, wellness, health promotion and injury prevention, and participating in community-related activities in her field.
She trained like crazy on the eve of an exposure camp in her future home country, which took place late last month. She went into the competition in the best shape of her life and emerged as MVP of the tournament, and more importantly — with a contract. Now she has to hurry and move her belongings from the Oakland campus back home to Grand Rapids before jetting off to Europe for the beginning of training camp early next month.
When Jeltema last walked off the court in an Oakland uniform, it was inside Sioux Falls Arena. No. 2-seeded Oakland was left to wonder “How did they just beat us?” following a loss to No. 7 Western Illinois in the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.
For Jeltema’s fellow seniors, it was likely their final game. But Jeltema, a first-team All Summit League selection, had been working toward a professional career long before the team embarked on its trip to the conference tournament.
Figuring out where she would continue her career has been her preoccupation since the Grizzlies’ early departure from the tournament. That, her course work and organizing a biking fundraiser for ALS research.
“I never really thought it was going to be my last game,” Jeltema said. “Right after the season ended, I was working toward this idea and talking to different people and working out. Working toward that goal. (Not playing again) was never really a thought in my mind.”
The Chemcats were one of three teams overseas to offer Jeltema a contract, a season after she led the Golden Grizzlies with 15.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. She was a steadying influence on a Grizzlies team forced to run with a young lineup because of an injury to potential all-league center Brittany Carnago in the preseason. The Grizzlies rallied to a 14-4 record in the Summit League, finishing second overall, but were unceremoniously knocked out of the league tournament.
Jeltema had long been scheming with Oakland womens coach Beckie Francis on a career path after college ball.
“She and I met once a month all year,” Francis said. “We were really strategic about who she wanted to play for and what country she wanted to play in.”
Following the season, Francis was able to send highlights of Jeltema’s stellar play, particularly in games where the Grizzlies played close to their Big Ten opponents in the non-conference schedule, to an agent in Germany. In turn, the messenger delivered those clips to the Chemcats’ coach, who saw plenty of Jeltema before she stepped off the plane.
Now, with a one-year deal in place, Jeltema is hoping for more. Adjusting to the customs could be tricky, as Jeltema, pressed for time, neglected to enroll in German courses in her four years at Oakland. But even though she is unfamiliar with the native language, Jeltema will have some company in Germany. She says the coach speaks and conducts practices in English.
And even though she’s halfway around the world, Jeltema will have a couple fellow Americans on the team to welcome her. One big component will be missing from her cheering section, though. Her parents won’t be able to make the same kind of commutes and flights they used to, trekking from the west side of the state to see their daughter play at home and on the road.
“It’s going to be different because my parents were at every single game this season. It’ll take some getting used to,” Jeltema admitted.
Francis expects the 5-foot-9 forward to continue her excellence in rebounding, despite usually being shorter than the bigs in the paint.
"She’s always been undersized. She just gets it done. She’s just tough,” the coach said.
“She’s always played above her size.”
Jeltema joins a Chemcats team which has been doing quite well. They were 15-2 a year ago, earning them a step up to the first division of Damen Basketball Bundesliga.
Although she’s ascending into a team that seems to be on top of its game, the work never ends for Jeltema.

Paul Kampe covers Oakland University basketball for The Oakland Press. E-mail him at paul.kampe@oakpress.com and follow him on Twitter @PaulKampe.

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