IRONTON — How fitting it was, on a Sunday of course, that University of Rio Grande women’s basketball head coach David Smalley sung Kaylee Darnell’s praises.
Only this gathering took place inside Ironton’s Buffalo Wild Wings —in a room filled with Darnell’s family, friends and Wheelersburg Lady Pirates teammates.
That’s because, on a sunny Sunday afternoon outside, all the glory was bestowed indoors —as Darnell decided to have her signing ceremony there, and officially announced her intentions of playing college basketball at the University of Rio Grande.
In fact, Darnell becomes the second Lady Pirate senior of this past season to commit to playing college basketball, as she joins Ellie Kallner —who in the winter committed to Concordia University.
The Lady Pirates’ third senior of the 2020-21 squad, Lauren Jolly, joins Darnell at Rio Grande —as Jolly has already announced her plans to play volleyball and run track.
Smalley, the veteran URG mentor, said Darnell could likely be starting next season — as a freshman shooting guard.
For Darnell, that’s a goal, but she said she decided upon Rio Grande because Smalley’s program provided “the best fit for me”.
“I hope to be starting my freshman year, but nothing is guaranteed, so obviously I am going to have to keep working hard,” said Darnell.
Darnell, a five-foot six-inch three-time (Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association) all-Southeast District Division III first-teamer and all-Ohioan —did receive official offers from Cedarville and Malone.
But her visit to Rio Grande gave her everything she wanted for her college basketball future.
“When I first visited Rio Grande, the coaches, the players, everyone there on staff just made me feel like I was at home. And it’s close to home, I think only an hour from my house. And I wanted to go somewhere where I had a chance of really playing a lot,” she said. “Altogether, that was just what I thought was my best fit.”
Darnell, as a senior, averaged 19.8 points per game — along with 4.4 rebounds, three assists and three steals.
She finished her career as Wheelersburg’s third all-time leading scorer, and could have easily ended up second —had the Lady Pirates played four regular-season games this season which unfortunately got cancelled.
As a junior and senior, she was the hands-down choice for Southern Ohio Conference Division II Player of the Year — and was this past season’s District 14 Coaches Association Division III POY.
At the all-Ohio level as selected by OPSWA, Darnell was Special Mention two years back — and a third-team choice last season.
The 2021 Division III all-Ohio girls basketball teams, as selected by an OPSWA statewide panel, is set to be released on Monday.
It helped her cause that the Lady Pirates, for the second time in three seasons, captured not only a Division III district championship — but also were the regional runners-up to eventual state champion Hiland.
In the district finals against Coal Grove and in the regional semifinals against Eastern Brown, Darnell lit the scoreboard up for 31 and 25 points respectively.
But Darnell, besides scoring many points, definitely developed into an all-around quality player —and a leader.
She said her rebounding and defensive play have dramatically improved as a Lady Pirate.
“As I went on, I realized that if we wanted to do well and go far in the tournament, I was going to have to pick up my role. Not only scoring, but rebounding, defense, passing,” she said. “If other people weren’t doing the job, I was going to fill their shoes and do whatever it takes.”
Wheelersburg girls basketball coach Dusty Spradlin, having coached the Lady Pirates for two full decades now, concurred.
“Kaylee has just been a fantastic scorer, and it’s hard to believe that four years have gone by that quickly. I seem to remember the freshman girl that I knew was coming in and I knew was going to make an impact and be really important to our program and she has. Three SOC II titles, two district titles and two regional runner-ups in four years,” said the coach. “She has scored a lot of points, but she can affect the game in so many different ways. Just meant so much to us and she is such a tough person to guard. Rio Grande is getting a complete player, someone who can not only affect the game offensively, but she has really worked defensively. She is a kid who plays bigger than what she is at 5-6. And she’s good in the classroom. They are getting a really good person and a competitor, not just a really good basketball player. She wants to be really good and she is someone who is going to work at it, so she is going to have a chance to have a really good career at Rio.”
At Rio Grande, Darnell doesn’t have to score as much — but one never knows right now.
Given that she will be playing alongside some of the Southeast District’s best, including current RedStorm players Caitlyn Brisker of Oak Hill and Lexi Woods of Paint Valley and fellow signees Morgan Bentley of Vinton County and Zoiee Smith of Waverly, her roles are expected to change.
“At Rio Grande, I don’t know where I will be yet, if I will need to score as much as I used to. But just whatever they want me to do, I am more than willing to do,” said Darnell. “I’m excited to get to be teammates with these girls. I’ve either played against them in high school or played with them in a few exposure tournaments and things like that. I’ve always competed against them, but never really have had the chance to be on the same team as them.”
Speaking of teammates, Darnell said the past four seasons as a Lady Pirate produced many fond memories.
“These past four years, I honestly couldn’t have asked for much more. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates and coaches. It’s been the best four years I could have asked for,” she said. “Playing with (Wheelersburg seniors) Ellie (Kallner) and Lauren (Jolly) has meant a lot. I’ve played basketball with them ever since I started playing basketball, but they have been my best friends forever. Just having them alongside me has really helped. We just have a lot of fun on and off the court.”
And off the court, Darnell said she plans to major in Radiology Technology.
But at Rio Grande, it’s indeed a new beginning — one that Smalley spoke Sunday praises for, and Darnell definitely is looking forward to.
“I am very excited about this, and it’s just something new. I am ready to get started with new teammates and new coaches. I am going to miss the past for sure, but I am really excited for the next four years,” she said. “I’m sad that this is all over, but I am excited about starting my college career at Rio Grande.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved