Some Southern Illinoisans know Jennifer Williams as that tall girl from West Frankfort who was an especially talented basketball and volleyball player with the West Frankfort Redbirds in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Others know her as a Hall of Fame basketball player for Coach Gary Barton and the John A. Logan College Volunteers, who helped lead the team to consecutive national appearances in 1991 and 1992.
Yet others know Williams as a two-year member of the Southern Illinois University Salukis basketball team under head coach Cindy Scott.
What most of those folks may not know, however, is that Jennifer Williams, married now for 27 years to Scott Panzeca (who was a baseball player at Logan when she went to school there), and mother to adult children, Zachary and Elizabeth, is facing a more challenging foe today than any she ever encountered on the hardwood.
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On Aug. 11, Williams-Panzeca, who resides in Westchester, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, will undergo a lengthy surgery at the Cleveland Clinic to address a blood-clotting disorder that is described as a high-risk or life-threatening surgery.
"The blood clotting has caused severe damage to my liver and blood vessels," Williams-Panzeca said. "I have Stage 3 cirrhosis of the liver and have never been a drinker. I've been told my liver is pristine otherwise. Eventually, I'm going to need a new liver and intestines. My gut's just a hot mess right now."
Williams-Panzeca said the blood-clotting disorder is hereditary as her younger sister, Joy, has similar issues, just nothing that has caused damage to her liver. Jennifer's surgical procedure is estimated to last about eight hours and will hopefully ease the pain and discomfort she feels on a regular basis.
"And also remove the fluid build-up," she said. "I'm pretty scared about all of this, but I know it's necessary. I will take all the well wishes I can get."
Four of Williams-Panzeca's best friends from West Frankfort came to visit her this past weekend - Lori Walters, Effaney Crain, Lee Caldwell and Shaney Gass.
"We've all been close friends for years," Williams-Panzeca said. "We've hung out together. We've vacationed together. The girls came all the way over here to hug my neck before my surgery, and I am very thankful to have such good friends. I can't imagine how hard it must be for those people who don't have a strong support system like I do."
Williams-Panzeca said she first became ill in 2018.
"I wasn't feeling well all of a sudden and I was exhausted on top of that, but I just kept putting things off. I thought maybe I was dehydrated. Finally, I had my daughter drive me to the emergency room one night. After that, I don't remember all that much as I was out of it for about three days. Finally, I woke up and improved temporarily. But the damage had been done.
"This surgery coming up is just a stopgap for me," Williams-Panzeca said. "The idea is to slow the progression down long enough for me to get a transplant. Of course, the surgery could cause more problems, but I'm hoping that won't be the case."
TRANSITIONING TO BASKETBALL PLAYER
Williams-Panzeca said she probably never would have gotten involved in basketball as a youth if not for the constant urging of her mother and older sister.
"I was already 6-foot tall, and everything was awkward for me when I was in the sixth grade. I wasn't looking for any negative attention. My mom practically had to beg me to play. I cried, but finally relented. I played on a team called the Wildcats when I was at Denning School," she said. "For a while, I hated every second of it. But then George Hopkins changed everything for me. He coached the team and was a phenomenal man. He saw that I was upset one day at practice and told me to go to the bathroom, take a deep breath, and regroup. He was patient with me and encouraged me."
Williams-Panzeca said that's exactly what she needed at that time.
"Soon, I found that the game came naturally to me. That made me want to work that much harder to be the best player I could be. Still, if my mom hadn't pushed me, I never would have played."
By the time she was in the eighth grade, Williams-Panzeca and her teammates had developed into a powerhouse team and went on to capture the state championship over McLeansboro at Rend Lake College.
"That was one of the best memories of my life," she said.
Williams-Panzeca's high school career didn't start off nearly as rosy as it ended from a team standpoint.
"We had losing seasons my freshman through junior year. And we had a different head coach every year. It was like a revolving door," Williams-Panzeca said. "The first three years I played for John Robinson, Gayle Moschino and Pat Sipes. They all left after one season. Keith Griffith changed all that my senior year.
"He took control in practice. He told us that we weren't showing respect for those who were trying to coach us. I remember we were practicing at St. John's School one day and Coach Griffith apparently got tired of all of our chatter and made us get on the line and run sprints. He was a no-nonsense guy and got us focused on winning games."
With basically the same core of players that won a state championship with the exception of a sophomore standout named Kellie Nicholson, the Redbirds began to win and win a lot.
"The success we had my senior year was a long time coming," Williams-Panzeca said. "It was amazing what all we were able to accomplish. I had some personal accolades my first three years, but I still didn't feel I was anything special. Coach Griffith got me believing in myself as a player."
That Redbirds team (1990) won the South Seven Conference and advanced to the Super Sectional, falling at Chester to Nashville in a tight game. West Frankfort had beaten Massac County and Goreville to capture the sectional, thus qualifying for the Super Sectional.
When it was all said and done at FCHS, Williams-Panzeca yanked down over 1,000 rebounds in her career had scored 1,708 points in her four seasons, the most in girls basketball history at the time and tied her with Tim Ricci for most points scored by any Redbirds player.
"I would have had the record if not for fouling out early in that Nashville game with only eight points," Williams-Panzeca said. "When I look back on it now, my thinking is that some officials weren't used to working games with bigger players like me (6-foot-3) who could move and score.
"When I came in contact with someone smaller (which was almost everyone that she played against), it sometimes didn't work out well for me. I remember how I felt when I walked off the floor against Nashville. It was like I had let the team down. That's not how I saw my high school career ending."
Williams-Panzeca said she will never forget the support of the community at the home games and so many of the postseason tournament games.
"It was so special to me because my family got to enjoy our success with us. I wish I could bottle up those memories and the way we, as a team, felt when we rode through town on the bus after winning a big game. It was an awesome feeling."
Williams-Panzeca added that her best game as a Redbird came on the road at Carterville.
"One of the boys who rode with us to keep stats told me on the way to the game I was going to score 44 points. And that's exactly what I did score that night. It's so silly, but it did happen. That's all we talked about on the ride home."
Williams-Panzeca said much of her personal success could be attributed to her teammates.
"I was surrounded by great players," she said. "If it weren't for the four other players on the court, I wouldn't have reached half of my goals. Team first, personal success second."
THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
Because of her height and ability to score and rebound, Williams-Panzeca was a prize recruit for Logan head coach Gary Barton.
"Coach Barton told me I was the center for his team. He told me what he expected of me and IKtwhat he saw in me. That even lit a bigger fire under me when he said those things."
Williams-Panzeca said she lost 10-to-15 pounds in workouts that summer of her freshman year at JALC.
"I was in the best shape of my life. I could move a lot faster, and the more I played, the better player I became. We advanced to the nationals that year, but didn't win any games.
In my sophomore year, we went back to the national tournament and placed fourth," Williams-Panzeca said.
"At that point, I felt I could play well against anyone in the country. Playing basketball at Logan was so much fun. Those two years there, along with my senior year at West Frankfort, were the best three years I've ever had playing the game."
Williams-Panzeca accepted an offer to play at SIU beginning her junior year.
"At the time, it was an easy choice for me because my family and friends were able to come to the games," she said. "But looking back on it now, SIU probably wasn't the right fit for me. It was actually quite deflating when I found out that I wasn't going to start. And as it turned out, I didn't get to play much at all. Not getting to play was like getting my legs cut out from under me. To this day, I still don't know why Coach (Cindy) Scott didn't play me more. She used me more as a teaching tool for the younger recruits.
"I wasn't going to quit the team, though," Williams-Panzeca said. "I would like to think I was a great teammate. I cheered them on from the bench. It was a good life lesson. Things don't always go the way you want them to. I did what I was told and that was that. I think my best game as a Saluki was like 15 points one time."
After earning a degree in education and management at SIU, Williams-Panzeca said she wanted to become a teacher-coach. But as it turns out, she got into healthcare instead and has worked for the last 15 years at Cincinnati's Children's Hospital as a senior coordinator for medical staff services.
She got pregnant with her first born, Zachary, in 1994, and then married her colllege sweetheart, Scott Panzeca, in 1995. The couple had a second child, Elizabeth, in 1997.