Playing for Mia: The Cyclones have found a new meaning to the season


Courtesy of Ann Schwieso

Schwieso sisters, Mia, Kendall and Aubrey training with women’s basketball player Lexi Donarski.

Payne Blazevich, Sports Reporter

AMES – After a tough home game against Baylor, Iowa State players Ashley Joens and Nyamer Diew stepped onto the podium for their postgame press conference Feb. 4.

The Cyclones had just left the court after a close loss to the Bears, but they displayed energy and emotion during the matchup. 

When asked where the energy came from, Diew was quick to answer. 

“We had a rough week of practice and stuff, and learning of the passing of a 13-year-old girl who was a fan,” Diew said, “So like just celebrating for her, celebrating her life and just being there.”

During the week of practice leading up to the Baylor game, the team learned that Mia Schwieso, a 13-year-old Iowa State superfan, had died Jan. 31 after suffering a brain aneurysm. She was a healthy, energetic girl that loved basketball and had developed relationships with different members of the team. 

With the loss weighing heavy on their hearts, as they approached the Saturday game, the team collectively decided where to focus their energy. They decided to play for Mia.

“It just means more to us, it’s so hard to lose somebody like that,” Diew said.

Mia at the Jr. Cyclone Club in 2015. (Courtesy of Ann Schwieso)

Iowa State women’s basketball fandom ran in Mia’s blood. Her parents, Ann and Chris Schwieso, spent their time as students (1998-2002) in Hilton Coliseum, watching the women’s team flourish under head coach Bill Fennelly. 

The love and fandom of Iowa State women’s basketball were passed down from Ann and Chris to their three daughters, Aubrey, Mia and Kendall, who grew up enthusiastic Cyclone fans. 

“We both had student season tickets to the women’s games, while many students were watching the men’s team, I loved that my boyfriend would watch that much women’s basketball (he was destined to be a girl dad),” Ann stated in an email. 

Paired with Mia’s fandom was a ferocious love of basketball. When she wasn’t getting lost in a story about recess pickup games — often detailing specific plays and matchups — she was playing for a league or summer team. 

Ann described her daughter as a competitor, whether it was intensity on the court or her insistence that the girls at her school could compete with the boys, something Ann loved about Mia. 

Mia’s love of basketball matured alongside her love of the Iowa State women’s team. She enjoyed watching the Cyclones, and her parents felt like the players on the team were people they wanted their daughters to emulate.

The Schwieso sisters were all members of the Jr. Cyclone Club, and their favorite day of the year was a clinic held by the women’s basketball team. 

“Seeing our kids on the court, shooting at Hilton, interacting with their heroes was a highlight,” Ann stated. “Since that time we have made efforts to get our girls to ISU games.”

Mia’s time on the court helped develop her as a player. Most recently, she had her first experience with middle school ball, playing for Harlan Community Middle School in seventh grade.

She also had a chance to interact with some players and coaches of her favorite team. 

As a Christmas present, Ann and Chris purchased a lesson from Lyndsey Fennelly, owner and manager of Elite 360 Training. Lyndsey Fennelly is also the wife of Iowa State assistant coach Billy Fennelly. 

The family met Lyndsey Fennelly at the Sukup Basketball Complex in December 2021 and received a tour of the facility — even running into some Iowa State players during the trip. Ann was taken aback through all the clinics and lessons by how friendly and welcoming the team was to her family. 

“We never felt rushed or like someone they HAD to talk to, it felt like they wanted to get to know our family,” Ann stated. “We knew we were not the only ISU women’s fans, but they certainly did a great job of making us feel welcomed.”

During the lesson with Lyndsey Fennelly, Mia picked up on some advice from the coach. According to Ann, she adjusted Mia’s approach to shooting, which helped her build some confidence. 

“At that lesson, Lyndsey watched Mia and said to her ‘what are you thinking about when that ball leaves your hand? Are you thinking that it is going in?’ Mia shook her head no and hung her head a little, and Lyndsey said ‘you have to believe it is going in each time,’” Ann stated. 

Mia proceeded to make her next five shots in a row, believing in herself after she saw others believe in her. Ann said it was a message that she thought Mia was interested in passing on. 

“She was a great teammate not only on the basketball court, she was an encourager, and I think she felt the impact it had on her and wanted to pass that feeling on to others,” Ann stated. 

Lyndsey Fennelly’s takeaway after the lesson was Mia’s coachability and attitude. She was quick to respond to feedback and carried herself like someone that was excited to play. 

Even after the lesson, Lyndsey Fennelly had a chance to interact with Mia at various camps, including Lexi Donarski’s camp in the fall. It was there that Lyndsey Fennelly noted her positive demeanor. 

“I’ve done this long enough to pick up on body language and things of that sort,” Lyndsey Fennelly said. “I could just tell she was really enthralled with the idea of being around one of her favorite players.” 

At the camp, Donarksi had a chance to interact with Mia and take a picture with her. Again, her attitude was a standout characteristic of the Iowa State guard. 

“She was really bright. A lot of energy to her and really happy to be there, and happy to be playing basketball, Donarski said. 

Mia’s energy was something that stood out to the team, and it’s something they’ll remember about her. It was her smile and pair of dimples, brightening every room, that the team will miss.

When the Cyclones heard the news of Mia’s death, they were eager to help in whatever way they could. The team shot a video for the family, sending prayers and delivering the message that they were playing for Mia. 

“We just started trying to be there, for her and her siblings as much as you can,” Donarski said.

Nyamer Diew cheers as an and-one is called during the game against Baylor in Hilton Coliseum on Feb. 4, 2023. (Daniel Jacobi II)

As the team prepared for Baylor, Mia was in their hearts and minds. Along with the video, Bill Fennelly gave Ann a phone call, and a couple of players sent messages to Mia’s sisters. 

The reaction from the Iowa State women’s team was a shock to Ann, who reached out to Lyndsey Fennelly a few days after Mia died. She was expecting a cordial message of condolence, but her family received so much more.

“I assumed I would receive a message saying I’m sorry for your loss, but instead we have received an outpouring of compassion for not only Mia but also her sisters,” Ann stated. “All of these things are evidence of what we have seen for years, the ISU women’s basketball team is not just a basketball team, it is a culture of how to act, how to live, and most importantly how to treat people.”

“This is evidence that it is so much bigger than basketball,” Ann stated. “This is truly the Cyclone Way.”

During the game, each three-pointer, putback and swing of momentum was in Mia’s honor. Even though Iowa State came up short, the team has been emphatic that their message is bigger than just one game. 

“To think that a family could be going through the worst times of their life, but lean into a group or culture or program that does just mean a lot to people,” Lyndsey Fennelly said. “I think that’s part of the joy and the opportunity that comes with wearing that jersey.” 

Even though the Baylor game has passed, the Cyclones have still kept Mia in their thoughts; they’re still playing for her.

Ann was surprised by the reaction, not just from the team but from the entire Iowa State community. Lyndsey Fennelly posted a tribute on social media about Mia, which gained the most amount of traction. 

Since then, the family has been overwhelmed by the support. 

“Ironically, Mia didn’t like the spotlight, she would have been embarrassed by this attention on just her,” Ann stated. “I like to think the attention is more on the way she lived her life and the inspiration and legacy she is leaving, and that is to approach life with a competitive spirit that always makes space for compassion.”

Friends, family, community members and even total strangers have shared their support with the Schwieso family. And the team has still tried to do its part. 

“Knowing that we could play for (Mia) and her family was just great,” Diew said. “Knowing that we would continue to play for her, and not just that one game.”

With the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments approaching, the Cyclones have plenty to worry about from a basketball perspective. But to the team, one thing has been clear since its Baylor game in early February. 

It’s bigger than basketball.