by: Randal Walton – Asst. Sports Editor
Not many basketball players get to go to college for free while doing what they love. Not many players excel on and off the court. Not many players make history while doing it. Then again, not many players are Kelli Riles.
“It’s an honor because not many people get this opportunity. I’m here on a scholarship to do something I love and at the same time get a free education,” the senior forward said. “So it’s a privilege and an honor all at the same time.”
Riles said she began playing basketball in the sixth grade, but not by choice.
“I actually started playing basketball by accident in the sixth grade. All of my friends were going out for the basketball team and I was in middle school and, of course, you want to be around all your friends,” she said. “Over time, I slowly started getting better, continued to play and got to where I am today.”
Today, Riles’ playing abilities and leadership qualities compare to the greats, said head coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick.
“As a player, she’s obviously one of the best players that will ever play in this program,” the Waynesville native said. “The way she’s impacting this program with her rebounding ability, obviously becoming our go-to person in her senior year – she’s handled a lot of the burden with her scoring.”
With that burden came the pressure to succeed and determine the fate of the team, she said.
“A lot of players are in a competitive situation but the burden of the scoring and defending is not solely on their shoulders,” Kirkpatrick said. “And Kelli bore a lot of that for us. We kind of lived and died through Kelli.”
The pressure to succeed extended to her work off the court, Riles said.
“You want your schoolwork to be more important than basketball, but at the same time, they’re both just as equal,” the mass communication student said. “So you can’t treat one better than the other, but it’s tough trying to finish your schoolwork. At the end of the day, you’re tired, but you still have to get it done.”
On the court, Riles inspired her teammates and her coaches with her playing ability and, sometimes, with her words, Kirkpatrick said.
“She wasn’t really a vocal leader, she was a leader by example and experience, but you could tell that she had the respect of her teammates,” she said. “I think that she learned the importance of communication and how to be a leader because of that, because people were watching and she was setting an example.”
In the locker room, Riles’ words resonated with the players, said junior forward Jeannie Buckner.
“Kelli’s influence on the team was huge. She’s the type player that when she talks everyone listens, whether she’s telling us to tighten up on defense, or work the ball better,” the 19-year-old said.
As a leader of the team, Riles was well-liked and respected by her teammates, Kirkpatrick said.
“She also was a captain, one of the leaders of this team, and she was elected unanimously,” she said. “It was a responsibility that she relished and I think she really grew a lot this year, both on and off the court.”
Riles did not shy away from the role either, passing on her knowledge of the game, Buckner said.
“Kelli has taught me to say what needs to be said, but not get too caught up in the words, and to just get it done,” the biology student said.
However, Riles’s greatest accomplishment made history. This season Riles compiled more than 1,000 rebounds and points, a feat not even Michael Jordan achieved.
This accomplishment made the entire team proud, Kirkpatrick said.
“Both of those are difficult statistical challenges. You’re not going to find many players that can do that,” she said. “Obviously, she’s going to be in our record books; her fingerprints are all over the record book. It’s going to be difficult for any other player behind her to accomplish what she has.”
Achieving such a difficult feat also made her proud of herself, Riles said.
“Out of my four years here, they have all been losing seasons, but I’ve had a good personal achievement and I’m proud of it,” the 22-year-old said. “I can’t even explain it, honestly. It’s a good feeling, though, to be able to accomplish something like that.”
But the mark Riles leaves goes beyond the record books, Buckner said.
“Having Kelli as a teammate meant you had someone you could count on to pull down the big defensive rebound you needed, or to go get the offensive board and lay it back in,” she said. “Kelli leaves a pretty impressive career behind her, and some great teammates and friends.”
However, it is more of Riles’s off court presence that the team will miss most, Kirkpatrick said.
“I think people will remember more of the off court stories than they will of the on court stories. If there was a singing competition on the bus or if there was a dance competition, she was one of the most entertaining,” she said. “We’ll miss her presence off the court just as we will on the court.”
Her favorite memory of Riles happened at the start of the season, Kirkpatrick said.
“I think my favorite memory of Kelli was at the beginning of the year, actually. And we used to film practice. This one time Gentry, one of her senior teammates, took a charge,” she said. “And Kelli did a celebration dance. Later on, we ended up showing that film to the team. She was out in the middle of the court, doing the charge call. And I was like, ‘What in the world?’”
Although she will miss it, playing basketball for the Bulldogs taught her one important lesson, Riles said.
“As easy as things come, they can easily be taken away from you,” she said. “Don’t take it for granted. These four years just flew by and I wish I could at least get one of them back.”