Late start does not slow West Liberty’s Kiki Simpson

Kiki-Simpson-West Liberty1
SATURDAY ON ASN: Xxx Xxx (click logo for local listings)
SATURDAY ON ASN: West Liberty (WVa) at Wheeling Jesuit (WVa), 4 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Kierra Simpson may not be the most vocal player on the West Liberty women’s basketball team. Even now in her senior year she is reluctant to speak up, but there is no doubt she has raised the roof several times with an energized style of play that has seen her re-write the program’s record books.

Earlier this season Simpson, who goes by “Kiki,” became the Hilltoppers’ all-time leader in career rebounds and heads into Saturday’s game on ASN against rival Wheeling Jesuit closing in on the program’s record for career blocks.

The 5-10 senior forward, who holds several school single-season records for rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage, is averaging 13.1 rebounds to easily lead the Mountain East Conference while placing fourth nationally in Division II. Her average of 3.08 blocks per game also paces the conference while ranking fifth in the country.

“They are a big deal to me because I usually do not get a lot of recognition, so that is why they are pretty special,” she said of the records. “I feel rebounding is one thing that I am consistent at, so to keep breaking records is always a great feeling.”

Simpson, whose remarkable field-goal percentage of .661 is the best in D-II, owns every single-game, single-season and career rebounding mark in the three-year-old Mountain East. (The conference, comprised of nine football-playing schools, is an off-shoot of the former West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.)

Not that everything has come easily for Simpson, who did not play basketball until she was 15 or 16. As a high schooler she ultimately became an all-city selection in her native Columbus, Ohio, though her basketball ability was nowhere near that of her athletic prowess. As a result Simpson played only eight minutes per contest as a freshman at WLU.

“The narrative would be she came to us as an absolute raw athlete,” said coach Lynn Ullom, in his 25th season at the helm of the Hilltoppers. “Her athleticism is something nobody would ever question because it is off the charts. That was a big reason why we recruited her, but her motor is unbelievable. There is not a kid in the United States that plays harder.”

Simpson knew her motor had to idle as a freshman while working on her game skills.

“Freshman season was a big learning year for me and it definitely helped my career a lot,” said Simpson, who is averaging 13.7 points this season. “It was like one big learning session. I got a lot of attention (at practice) knowing that I would be playing a lot during my sophomore year.”

The soft-spoken Simpson started to come out of her shell last season as a junior, when she averaged a school record 11.7 rebounds to go with 2.9 blocks.

“Out of the blue last year she started talking during timeouts,” Ullom recalled. “She would look at her teammates like ‘Let’s go.’ She would tell them they need to play harder and have to do this and that. I think it was kind of shocking when she first started it, but I don’t think there is any question that she is the leader of this basketball team.”

As a senior leader Simpson understands dishing out a little verbal encouragement from time to time goes with the territory, though she would be perfectly content to allow her play to do the talking.

“My teammates look to me as somebody to listen to,” she said. “I know I have to speak up around them sometimes and I don’t mind it. It is more what I have to do versus what I want to.”

Not surprisingly she does not display emotion following a timely block. She would never think of showing up an opponent.

“I feel like I do not want to get too personal about it,” said the program’s first career 1,000-point, 1,000-rebound player. “I try to just keep calm and do my job.”

Simpson has made it her job to improve from the free-throw line following a dismal 40.8% from the stripe last season. She worked on it over the summer, does so after practice until her arms tire and even finds time between classes. The result is her percentage is up to 59.2.

“I would say a big part of it is concentration, but definitely my confidence,” said the computer information systems major and first-team CoSIDA Academic All-District honoree. “During my sophomore year I would get upset when I was fouled. That’s how bad I was. I did not want to shoot a free throw. I worked at it and now I am not fearful when I am on the line.”

Instead she strikes fear into opponents driving the lane. More than 200 career blocks will do that.

“I was in a lot of foul trouble early in my career, so I had to learn how to get better at blocking shots,” she said. “That part of my game has come a long way.”

So has Simpson’s play since those days of playing eight minutes per game.

Above: Despite not beginning her basketball career until her mid-teens, West Liberty’s Kiki Simpson has taken on a leadership role for the Hilltoppers.  (Courtesy Matt Watson/WLU Sports Information)
Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.