Stephanie Stevens was in her pre-teens when younger brother Mark was born with Down syndrome. In order to communicate with her only male sibling, the budding basketball star began learning sign language, and as she continued to study, both her expertise and regard for signing flourished.
Stevens never relinquished her affection for basketball, either. The 2006 Ohio high school player of the year earned a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where she was named to the Big East all-academic team four times and majored in special education with a concentration in sign language interpretation and deaf studies.
By her senior year, Stevens had become certain the most rewarding path for her professional career would include a combination of basketball and working with the deaf and hard of hearing.
Stevens, 25, landed that plum job a little more than two weeks ago when she became head coach of the Gallaudet women’s team. Gallaudet is an internationally recognized university for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Stevens became fully vested in the school’s mission as well as her players during her one season as a graduate assistant.
“I was getting very teary because of what I wanted to do here,” Stevens said of her reaction to being hired. “I wanted to come back to Gallaudet, and that was the most important thing to me. Being a head coach, that’s just the cherry on top.”
Stevens spent the year following her graduation from Cincinnati working at Gallaudet for Kevin Cook, its coach at the time. The two met via an introduction through Bearcats women’s basketball assistant Mark Ehlen, who is a friend of Cook’s and knew of Stevens’s deep involvement with the deaf and hard of hearing.
The timing couldn’t have been more precise. Cook’s graduate assistant had completed her two seasons with the team, and he was seeking a replacement. With Stevens on board, the Bison went 24-4, were ranked for more than a month and qualified for the Division III tournament for the first time since 1999.
That same season, Gallaudet scrimmaged Maryland at Comcast Center, and Stevens got to know Maryland Coach Brenda Frese and her staff. Players from both teams interacted as well after the game, and Stevens recalled feeling completely comfortable in College Park.
Stevens last year joined the Maryland women’s basketball staff as the coordinator of recruiting operations, working primarily with Tina Langley, Frese’s top assistant.
“I think one of the things that will help her is she had an opportunity to view what goes on behind the scenes within a successful team,” Langley said. “She did a great job working hard and just fitting in and learning the environment. She has just a great passion for signing, and she talked about it all the time, so I think it’s neat that she can put her two passions together.”
While she was at Maryland, Stevens stayed in touch with Gallaudet players, and when the head coaching position opened, starting guard Stephanie Weiss, among others, began lobbying for her to come back.
Stevens “knows what she’s doing. She knows everything about basketball,” Weiss said. “She already has that experience as an assistant coach, and working with Brenda Frese and the University of Maryland, a Division I school, I knew that was her dream to go and experience that kind of level.”
Part of Stevens’s development as a coach included learning when to be stern with her players. That assignment can become even more complicated on a team whose members all are either deaf or hard of hearing.
So instead of raising her voice to show disapproval, Stevens uses more pronounced facial expressions or hand movements when she’s signing. She also must pick her spots when conveying strategy, because getting the attention of her players isn’t always possible when their backs are turned to the bench.
“How we play the game is the same” as hearing teams, Stevens said. “It’s just that there needs to be eye contact all the time. As a language, [sign] is just so beautiful. It’s so amazing to me just how we can use our hands. I feel it’s easier to communicate not using your voice.”