Class of 2019 Honda Inspiration Award Finalists Announced

Senior Kelci Abernethy from Bryant University, senior Samantha Bombardiere of Centenary University, senior Jenna Fessler of Thomas More University and redshirt sophomore Kionna Jeter of Towson University and are named finalists for the Honda Inspiration Award as announced by Judy Sweet, CWSA Board Member and Chair of The Collegiate Women Sports Awards (CWSA) Inspiration Award committee.

The Honda Inspiration Award winner for the Class of 2019 will be selected from these four finalists by the CWSA Board of Directors. A special broadcast highlighting the four finalists overcoming adversity called Defying the Odds: The 2019 Honda Inspiration Award will air on CBS Sports Network on June 18 at 8:00 pm, followed by an encore on June 24 at 8:30 pm, and three additional encore airings to be announced.

An Inspiration Award winner has been selected annually for the past 31 years and will be presented on a live telecast on CBS Sports Network on June 24, 2019, in the Founders’ Room at the Galen Center on the campus of the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles, as part of the two-day Honda Awards event.

Chris Voelz, Executive Director of The CWSA said, “Each nominee’s story captured our hearts and inspired us with their courage and success in overcoming their adversity and returning to action. The Committee had a real challenge in determining those finalists whose experiences stood out above the rest and as such became our finalists."

The Honda Inspiration Award is given to a deserving female student-athlete in Division I, II or III who has experienced extraordinary physical and/or emotional adversity, injury and/or illness, or experienced extraordinary personal sacrifice during her college enrollment as a student-athlete and yet returns to athletic success.

"On behalf of the CWSA Inspiration Committee, I am pleased to announce the four finalists for the Class of 2019 Inspiration Award,” said Sweet. ““We reviewed 23 strong nominations, and while each one had a truly inspiring story, these four finalists most fully met the criteria for the Inspiration Award. We applaud their courage and strong resilience in overcoming their challenges and subsequently competing successfully in their sport.”

Kelci Abernethy, Senior, Bryant University, Swimming & Diving

In November of 2016, Kelci suffered a significant, traumatic and violent injury while trying to execute an Inward 2 ½ somersault from the diving board. She accidentally hit her face on the board and crashed into the water. She was rushed to the Trauma Center at Rhode Island Hospital with severe head and face injuries. A plastic surgeon put several layers of stitches in her forehead and she also suffered a fractured eye socket, concussion, and a broken toe.

Her junior year was filled with diving fear and anxiety and she quit competing while seeking counseling for PTSD but was determined to get back on the board for her senior season. She worked hard to regain the confidence to execute her inward 2 1/2 and did so successfully. Kelci finished her career as a five-time NEC Diver of the Week and won a gold medal in the 1-meter dive at the NEC Championships. She'll graduate as the program record-holder in the 1-meter and 3-meter dives.

Samantha Bombardiere, Senior, Centenary University, Soccer

Disappointed with her freshman year performance, Samantha focused on getting her fitness level ready during the spring season but started to report pains in her back. After numerous treatments with the training-staff, she was sent for an MRI and the doctors found a cancerous tumor on her ovary the size of a grapefruit; she underwent surgery immediately. This was just the start of her long journey back to playing the sport she loved.

After undergoing chemotherapy, she returned in the fall for her sophomore year determined to be a part of the team in any capacity but was not cleared to play until her junior season. However, her senior year is when she saw all the pain and suffering, all the treatments, extra fitness and hard work pay off. Cancer free for two and half years, she anchored the defense and led her team to a conference championship and an NCAA Championship appearance. Sam was named First-Team All-Conference, Defensive Player of the Year, a CoSida Regional Team honoree, and the Centenary Woman of the Year for her efforts.

Jenna Fessler, Senior, Thomas More University, Volleyball

Jenna started her volleyball journey with Thomas More University in the Fall of 2014 and quickly established herself as a gifted young athlete. In August of 2016, she became quite ill and was soon diagnosed with West Nile Meningoencephalitis. Jenna struggled with the lengthy illness, was in a coma for a time, and experienced weight loss and significant weakness. She was unable to return to volleyball that season.

In the Fall of 2017, she amazingly returned to volleyball and played her entire junior season, however, her medical challenges were not over. Right before her senior year, Jenna developed a blood clot in her right arm and was told her condition would require extensive surgery. After Initiating treatment with blood thinning medication, and consulting further with her physicians, Jenna made the decision to delay surgery and play her senior year of volleyball. She started all matches that season, and her honors included ACAA Setter of the Year, First-Team All-Conference, two-time ACAA Player of the Week and an ALL-Great Lakes Honorable Mention.

Kionna Jeter, Redshirt-Sophomore, Towson University, Basketball

In the summer of 2018, Kionna signed to play at Towson University for the women's basketball team after transferring from Gulf Coast State in Panama City, FL, where she averaged 19.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. During her final year at Gulf Coast State, she returned home to Spartanburg, SC, for a funeral and was shot twice in the back during a drive-by shooting. One bullet traveled close to her heart and one fractured her shoulder blade. Unsure if she would even survive the wounds, she certainly never thought she would play basketball again.

Rehab, therapy, will and strength got her back on the court. She led Towson to its highest-ever seeding entering the CAA Championship and the program’s first-ever NCAA Championship appearance.  For her efforts, she was recognized as a First-Team All-CAA honoree and also named to the CAA All¬Defensive Team and the CAA All-Tournament team. In the Tigers' first NCAA game, Kionna led the team with 20 points and had a game-high seven steals. She was named the CAA Player of the Week three times en route to leading the conference in points per game and steals per game. She finished with 572 points on the season, the second-most points scored in a year in program history.

The CWSA, in its 43rd year, honors the nation’s top NCAA women athletes recognizing superior athletic skills, leadership, academic excellence and eagerness to participate in community service.  Since commencing its sponsorship in 1986, Honda has provided more than $3.5 million in institutional grants to the universities of the award winners and nominees to support women’s athletics programs at the institutions.