LEBANON — Though the seat is empty now, McKendree guard Caty Ponce still can see her father in the stands where he used to watch her play.
"I can still see him in the little seat where he used to sit," Ponce said. "My parents have season tickets, so he'd sit in the same seat every game this past year."
Ponce's father, Danny, died Jan. 13, less than 10 months after being diagnosed with brain cancer. He was 51.
Danny Ponce's funeral was held three days later, and that night, Caty Ponce scored 11 points in the Bearcats' 72-62 loss to Lewis University.
"I thought that he'd want me to play," said Caty Ponce, who played her high school ball at Edwardsville. "That was his favorite thing to do, watch me play basketball, so it was something I wanted to do."
McKendree coach Melissa Ringhausen said Caty Ponce has handled a difficult situation with grace.
"I think it's a testament to her work ethic and her commitment," Ringhausen said. "I think basketball through the challenges of her father's illness was a release for her. It helped her get through that, actually."
Even as his illness took its toll, Danny Ponce remained a supportive father.
"He always told me I played great," Caty Ponce said. "Every time I came home, he asked me about basketball. He always wanted to be in the loop and know what was going on. I know after I scored my 1,000th point, he and Mom called me afterward. He told me, 'Good job.' The next day he called me and said, 'Did you score your 1,000th point yet?' We kind of relived the moment a couple of times."
Caty Ponce, a junior, has led the Bearcats in scoring each of the last three seasons. She became the 13th player in McKendree history to score 1,000 points during a 69-59 road loss to Kentucky Wesleyan on Dec. 22.
She was presented with a basketball commemorating the accomplishment during the Bearcats' game against Missouri-St. Louis on Jan. 3.
Danny Ponce was on hand for the ceremony.
"That was the last time he actually walked or left the house," Caty Ponce said. "It was perfect. It was a perfect day."
Caty Ponce wasn't known for her scoring at Edwardsville High School, where she averaged 12.4 points, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game as a senior.
"In high school, I never scored 1,000 points or did anything like this," Ponce said. "Of course, I had a lot of help from a lot of great players here, and Coach Ringhausen let me play at such a young age."
With a high-powered lineup that included Mary O'Keefe (Southern Indiana) and Emmonie Henderson (Louisville), the Tigers didn't need a lot of scoring from Caty Ponce.
"I think her role in high school was different," Ringhausen said. "She and I have often talked about that. When you play Emmonnie Henderson as your starting center, you're role is going to be different. Caty is going to play into whatever role that you need her to play into. In college, she has had to step up and be one of our scorers."
Ponce has started every game she has played during her three years with the Bearcats.
"I can remember our first tournament and it was a couple of days before we were going to go and my mom was going to go," Ponce said. "I called her and said, 'Hey, I don't think I am really going to play. Don't come. It's OK.' The day before the game, (Ringhausen) told me I was starting and I had to call my mom up and I was like, 'OK, you need to be there.'
"There is so much you gain by actually playing rather than sitting on the bench for a year, so I think that really helped me out."
At 5-foot-6, Ponce isn't blessed with a lot of height. She's also not blessed with superior athleticism.
Ponce makes up for her lack of God-given gifts with hard work, determination and her knowledge of the game.
"She has a never-ending work ethic," Ringhausen said. "She is constantly in the gym shooting on her own and she is just a competitor. She is going to be the player who steps up with whatever you need to have done. If I needed her to be my best defender, she would work on being my best defender."
Ponce has scored in double digits in 58 of her 71 career games for the Bearcats. She tied the McKendree single-season record with 62 3-pointers last year.
Ponce said her father was the one who helped hone her shooting skills even though he never played basketball in high school.
"He was like 4-11 going into high school, but whenever he got older, he played city league," Caty Ponce said. "He actually tore his ACL playing, so he stopped playing for a while. He always helped me shoot. We always joked that we're lucky I didn't get my mom's shot."
Caty Ponce's mom, Julie, played softball at Civic Memorial High School in Bethalto.
Danny Ponce was the owner of Excel Plumbing in Troy, but he always was willing to take time to help his daughter with her shooting, especially if she was in a slump.
"He'd say, 'Just stop thinking about it. You're a good shooter. It'll go in,"' Caty Ponce said.
Ponce is a high-percentage free-throw shooter. She holds the McKendree career record for free-throw shooting accuracy at 88 percent (199 of 226).
"I was always told, 'Those are the easiest points, get them while you can,"' Ponce said. "Nobody can block me while I am shooting a free throw."
Ponce said Edwardsville High coaches Lori Blade and Donna Farley always stressed the importance of free throws.
Edwardsville players shot 100 free throws every day, and a log was kept of how many were made.
"Out of 100, my most was 98," Caty Ponce said. "We always had a free-throw-thon at Edwardsville, and every day that I shot free throws, I was always from 88 to 95. That was always a big pride thing. I always wanted to win that."
Caty Ponce was a three-sport star for the Tigers, excelling at volleyball, basketball and softball.
She played softball for the Bearcats as a freshman and a sophomore, but she's sitting out this upcoming season after an injury marred last season.
"I tore the ACL in my arm, which is kind of like the ACL in your leg, so I had a rough season anyway," Ponce said. "I decided I really wanted to focus on basketball, and it's really what I always loved. My dad always loved watching me play, and I just thought it was the right decision for me to focus down, be on my studies and work on one sport."
Ponce is majoring in math with the plan of pursuing a career in secondary education as a high school teacher and coach. She'd like to coach on the college level.
The Bearcats are currently 7-9 overall, 2-6 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
Ponce said her goal for this season would be making the GLVC Tournament in the team's first year of eligibility.
"I think that is a huge step in our first year of actually competing in the GLVC," Ponce said.
The future looks bright for the Bearcats. They'll lose only one senior -- guard Brittany Willis -- to graduation.
"We've finally made it through the transition, and now we're on that stage of getting the program to be a competitive Division II program," Ringhausen said. "It's not going to happen overnight, and every year is going to be a stepping stone."
Ponce wants to continue to improve so she can finish her college career on a high note.
"I want to be the best player I can be," she said. "I know I only have so many years to play and I want to take advantage of that."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.