Gracee Dishman gets to come home more often than some college students.
She will settle into her favorite chair on the family farm in Crossville, Tennessee with her black lab, Izzy by her side. Crossville is just an hour from Bryan College, so mom’s chicken and dumplings and time with her dog are never too far away.
Dishman first picked up a basketball in second grade. Bryan and Nancy Dishman were both high school athletes and supported her and her siblings through all their athletic endeavors. In third grade, Gracee began AAU and entered Hoop Shoot, a national free-throw contest sponsored by the Elks National Foundation.
She ended up in Boston for the finals, finishing third.
Gracee did her share of basketball travels, winning seven national titles with Tennessee’s Team Pride, so by the time high school started, Dishman had rung up plenty of reps. Radhika Miller, Dishman’s aunt, would prove to be her toughest coach as she played varsity at Cumberland County High.
“She pushed me beyond and I’m appreciative of that. She held me accountable but I am the player I am today because of her,” Dishman said of her aunt, who played basketball at North Alabama.
Though surrounded by support with a family of athletes, her athletic abilities were a hot topic at family gatherings.
“I remember sitting at holiday dinners and the talk consisted of how I was playing or what I needed to work on,” Dishman said.
Those talks shifted to celebrations of accolades: Class AA Miss Basketball, McDonald’s All-American Nominee, Prep Hoops Top 100 in the nation, leading scorer in Tennessee closing her high school career with 2,990 points, ranked 17th in the nation for scoring and District 7AA MVP.
Yet all the awards — including 26 game MVP honors — did not convince everyone.
“I constantly heard that I wasn’t big enough, strong enough or fast enough,” Dishman said.
Put to the Test
Dishman prepared all summer before heading to Division II Lincoln-Memorial University, but tore her meniscus before starting play for the Railsplitters. She was prepared to rehabilitate for 12 weeks post-surgery, but awoke in recovery and was informed she also suffered a microfracture, an injury treated like an ACL tear and one which requires a longer recovery period.
“I come out of surgery and find out that I’m out for eight months. God had other plans for me,” Dishman said.
Dishman thrust herself into physical therapy at LMU but pushed too much and re-injured her knee, extending her recovery and frustration. That is when she began to question everything. Driving to classes on the expansive campus, lost in the massive lecture halls and trailing behind with lack of help, Dishman hit rock bottom.
“I remember calling my parents and crying. I was so exhausted mentally and physically but I didn’t realize how much it was hurting me,” Dishman said.
Dishman noted the pressure from family, friends and the community about the need to go the Division I or II route. She struggled her senior year with less than four offers, again reminded she wasn’t “big enough, fast enough or strong enough.”
“At LMU I kept thinking it was what I wanted but I don’t believe it was what God wanted. When I stopped ignoring those signs and let Him take control, He brought me to Bryan College,” Dishman said.
(Photos by John Fitzgerald)
Heart of the Lions
Initially bitter over the transfer in her second semester, with small-town gossip of a “washed-up” NCAA Division II player headed to the NAIA, Dishman struggled at first.
“It’s a big adjustment and transition from that level to the NAIA, but it was about me being happy and where the Lord wanted me,” Dishman said.
Immediately, Bryan’s Lions offered support to their new teammate. Faith Simmons personified the love and support of the Bryan community with her new teammate. Simmons knew how Dishman felt since she had recovered from the same surgery twice in the past.
“We want to see our teammates succeed as much as we want our own success, being part of a team that truly lives out a ‘we over me’ mentality,” Simmons said.
Another recent transfer, Samantha Russell, recognized the outpouring of love and support at Bryan, which quickly bonded her to her new teammates, especially Dishman.
“I transferred from a very different environment to what feels like home. From my coaches, teammates, and even staff that support us, it really feels like my second family,” Russell said.
When not in the classroom or on the court, the Lions often volunteer together at daycare centers and schools, providing much-needed help during staff shortages. Dishman has thrived serving in a community that leads by example through opportunities that challenge players to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
As Dishman improved her grades and focused on rehabilitation she hit a roadblock so many others also encountered when the global pandemic hit. For Dishman, it was more than isolation and specter of illiness, but also the loss of her rehabilitation routine.
“I took it into my own hands and pushed myself for two months,” Dishman said.
By May of 2020, Dishman was cleared to return and was actually beyond expectations. She continued to push herself in the gym over the summer anticipating her Bryan debut.
“I didn’t even get to play a game at LMU … my last game was in high school,” Dishman said.
The shutdown gave Dishman time to reflect on her basketball journey and she wondered if she would be the same, compounding her health issues with the pandemic’s effects.
“It taught me to be patient with myself and I developed a new love for the game after it was taken from me,” Dishman said. “After you go through that for nine months, it changes you mentally.”
Dishman said that the Bryan community and coach Bryon Lawhon made all the difference.
“Ever since I stepped foot here, I’ve never felt so loved and cared for off the basketball court and that has made me love Bryan and the people I am surrounded by,” Dishman said.
A Father who Leads the Pride
Lawhon was the assistant coach of both men’s and women’s basketball programs at Bryan College for eight years before being named head coach of the Lady Lions. When Jason Smith departed for Cedarville, the college administration was flooded with phone calls and emails from players and families alike rallying behind the promotion.
“He is exactly what we needed as a team. Coach Lawhon is the most genuine person I have ever met. He has believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Dishman said.
As assistant coach, Lawhon was responsible for recruiting but focused on building meaningful relationships.
“Coach Lawhon is the reason we are all at Bryan, he recruited almost all of us and has been on the bench since we have been at Bryan,” Simmons said.
Russell agrees and offers some of the highest praise a coach could receive: “Coach Lawhon changed my perspective of what a coach should be.”
Lawhon was named the Appalachian Athletic Conference’s Coach of the Year, an honor he says was not his own.
“I tell them every day that I’m going to coach you hard and I’m going to coach you to get better because you deserve that from me,” Lawhon said.
Lawhon attributes much of the program’s success to his unique relationships and how his program is filled with hard-working players. He approaches his position as a father, coaching the way he would want his four children coached.
“I’m a dad. I coach as a father, I want them to feel valued and loved, knowing that we’re pushing them because we love them,” Lawhon said.
A towering 6-7, Lawhon appreciates the NAIA’s unique opportunities to build and nurture relationships. There are many restrictions in other college athletic associations that limit the coach-player relationship.
“He cares more about us as individuals than he does as basketball players,” Dishman said.
“The other night I was able to take a couple of our seniors out for Mexican food,” he said. “I can invest in them the way I want to where they can’t at other levels.”
Lawhon is mindful of what role he needs to be in each of his players' lives, be it father-figure, mentor or a caring ear. He knows each of his players well but the bond between Lawhon and Dishman is different because of how alike they are.
“Gracee and I are two of the most competitive people on planet earth,” he said. “She will run through a brick wall, will do anything short of cheating to win and we hold each other accountable on how competitive we can get.”
Said Dishman: “I demand perfection, but you know you can’t be perfect. We’re like the same person, we’re both so competitive and feed off each other.”
The pursuit of perfection has been good for the Lions as they concluded their season in the NAIA Round of 16 with a school-best record of 32-2. They were perfect through the regular season before taking a loss in regionals and eventually falling to Thomas More at nationals.
“This season has been amazing and we’ve rode highs I may never see again as a head coach. It’s been a special year and I knew with what we have, it had the potential to be really special,” Lawhon said.
Boasting academic excellence with 14 of 15 players averaging a 3.0 grade-point average or higher, an overall team GPA of 3.698, the Lions claimed four of the five conference awards. Dishman earned AAC Player of the Year and all-conference accolades, averaging 20.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Coupled with AAC Defensive Player of the Year Kaitlynn Hennessee, and AAC Newcomer of the Year Samantha Russell, the Lions roared their way through the season with grit and determination under the leadership of players like Dishman.
“You know you have something special when your best player is your hardest worker. I’ve got a team of hard workers but my best player has set the bar for hard work,” Lawhon said.
The NAIA recognized that by recently naming her a 2nd Team All-American
Dishman’s drive is also recognized and respected by her teammates.
“She always pushes herself to get better and it is such an inspiring thing to me and other people on the team,” Russell said.
Simmons agrees saying, “Gracee brings a balance of humility and grit to our program. Everything she does is with passion and tenacity and she does it all with a humble heart.”
Dishman has always been good, well before arriving at Bryan. But her faith and pandemic struggles led her to find another level, just in time to become a leader of a program that may define her career as an athlete.
“Never do I have to motivate that kid, she’s the most coachable player and it’s based on trust. She never leaves the gym without an ‘I love you, coach,’” Lawhon said.
What’s more, she means it.
“Being at Bryan allowed me to find out who I was as a basketball player and as a person too,” she said. “It’s literally the best decision I’ve ever made in my whole life.”
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