Every once in a while, you hear about a kid who makes you feel good about amateur athletics, a young star who puts a genuine emphasis on the the student part of student-athlete.
If you haven’t heard of Jackie Kemph, do yourself a favor and watch one of her St. Louis University women’s basketball games this season.
Midway through her junior year, the talented guard is already SLU’s all-time assists leader. And she’s well on her way to becoming the Billikens’ all-time leading scorer.
She’s as competitive as any athlete in St. Louis — amateur or pro, men or women. Equally impressive, I challenge you to find a more committed student-athlete in the state, whether at SLU, Mizzou or any other school.
With all due respect to the brilliant Vladimir Tarasenko, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Alex Pietrangelo, if your daughter or son is looking for an athlete to emulate, you’d be smart to point them in Kemph’s direction.
It would be easy to focus this column on Kemph’s athletic exploits, especially considering the history she and the Billikens have made since coach Lisa Stone recruited her from Rolling Meadows (Ill.) High.
Kemph credentials are definitely impressive, but we’ll get to that in a second. First let us mention the frustrating two points that will tell you quite a bit about her intelligence, priorities and competitiveness.
Those two points have nothing to do with a basket, yet they highlight the type of student-athlete who is drawn to a rigorous academic school such as SLU.
Those two points out of 200 possible last semester in a fixed-income securities class are all that has kept Kemph from a perfect 4.0 grade point average at SLU.
“It was a very tough class, but I worked pretty hard to get a B+,” she said. “I tried my best, but I missed an A- by two points.”
Even with that “setback” Kemph carries a 3.91 GPA that is as impressive as her 521 career assists or her status as the only Billikens player in history with at least 500 assists and 1,000 points.
Kemph’s drive for perfection has been one of her signature traits at SLU, in the classroom and on the court.
Kemph is on pace to graduate from SLU in three years this May with a degree in accounting. Then she hopes to start working on a masters degree in accounting next summer to get her CPA during her final year of eligibility.
“She’s as good as it gets as far as a quality human being, great player, great student, and an even better person,” Stone said.
The 5-foot-7 point guard ranks third in the nation with 7.7 assists a game, which is tops in the Atlantic 10 Conference. She also leads the conference in assist-turnover ratio (2.35 to 1) and is fifth in scoring (15.1 points a game).
She has helped SLU accomplish several historic milestones in her short tenure, including the Billikens’ first victory over Missouri last month in a dramatic comeback from 18 points down.
SLU was picked first in the A-10 preseason poll this season for the first time in school history after Kemph led the Billikens to a share of the school’s first A-10 women’s basketball regular season title last season.
Unable to win the A-10 conference tournament last year, they were denied an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. They overcame that disappointment, though, by making the Elite 8 of the Women’s NIT.
“First of all, she’s the best player I’ve ever recruited by far,” said Stone, who spent eight of her 31 years of coaching in the Big Ten with Wisconsin. “I’ve never had somebody that gifted and fast. She’s the fastest player I’ve really seen with the ball in her hands.”
As the A-10 co-player of the year last season, Kemph became the first SLU woman to win that award. She has already been the A-10 player of the week twice this season.
She has started every game since her freshman year, when SLU finished tied for eighth in the A-10 with a 7-9 record and a 15-16 overall mark. That losing season was difficult for a kid who had reached the state championship game as a junior and senior in high school.
“It’s been great to see that transformation,” she said. “We used it as motivation.”
That’s not to say Kemph ever needs much motivation. She has competed since birth, when she beat her twin sister Allie out of the womb by a minute.
“I think if you ask anyone, they’d say I’m super competitive,” she said. “My friends will tell you that. I have a twin sister, so I was set up in that role.
“I feel like it’s in everything. Even little drills in practice, I hate losing. I have a mini-pool table, and I’m super competitive with everything, board games. If I lose I get pretty mad.”
Kemph and the Billikens are 11-3 overall and 1-0 in conference play heading into their game against George Mason at Chaifetz Arena on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Kemph is still disappointed about the loss the Billikens suffered last year at home against George Mason, so she’s eager to atone.
“It was an overtime loss, our first conference game,” she remembers. “We were picked pretty high. Everyone remembers that. It was heartbreaking. We’re ready for them.”
The kid who may go down as the best women’s basketball player in SLU history continues to make her mark. You owe it to yourself and your family to go watch her and the Billikens play. She represents what we like to think college sports are about.