Being a big fish in a small pond is enjoyable; that is, until the pond becomes filled with even larger fish. Most college students who were top of their high school class know this feeling; the transition from being seen as unique to ordinary is a shell shock for most freshmen.
For Melody Kempton, junior forward on the Gonzaga University women’s basketball team, she realized this in her first season on the court.
“Coming in, everyone is the best from their area,” Kempton said. “You go from being the only one to being surrounded by everyone who was the best.”
And she was most certainly the biggest fish in the Idaho pond while in high school. Kempton’s career at Post Falls saw her become the school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and blocked shots, while also being named the 5A Inland Empire League Player of the Year all four seasons. To go along with numerous all-state team selections, her accolades were capped off with Gatorade Player of the Year and a nomination to the McDonald’s All-American Game as a senior averaging 16 points and eight rebounds per game.
But the athletic prowess didn’t end there for Kempton; when she wasn’t on the court, she excelled on the track. Utilizing the hops she developed while playing basketball, she became a three-time Idaho high jump state champion and a triple-jump champion. What Kempton called a “mental break” just casually made her one of the top track and field athletes in the state, a testament to her competitive spirit she developed in high school.
This mentality was put on full display at the state championship for track field her freshman year while competing in the high jump event. Despite tweaking her ankle on a previous attempt, Kempton still managed to win the title by clearing 5 feet 6 inches, a school record she set herself in a previous meet. That didn’t satisfy her however, as she took three attempts at 5 feet 7 inches, coming up short each try yet never giving up.
“I don’t want to come in second, so if I’m going to do something, I’m going to go all out,” Kempton said.
With a desire to be the best propelling her as the area’s top athlete, Kempton felt that this title came with the responsibility of acting as a role model for the younger generation that looked up to her. So, she decided to be active in her community through community service initiatives, youth basketball camps and even as a host at the Idaho Catholic Youth Convention. Kempton even led by example in the classroom with a 4.12 GPA as a senior.
“I felt like I was given all of these opportunities and there was so much going for me that I wanted to give back,” Kempton said. “A lot of people, especially kids, looked up to me because of what I’d accomplished in basketball.”
Kempton’s impact on and off the court also caught the attention of college basketball scouts, which meant it was time for her to decide where she would continue her career. The recruiting process was a bit more complex than expected however, especially when it came to Gonzaga’s scholarship offer. Uncertain about the legitimacy of the school’s offer, she actually called to confirm their level of interest in her as a sophomore. After chatting with the coaches, her suspicions were confirmed; she was going to be a Zag, the team she grew up watching with her family on road trips to Spokane.
The familiarity with GU did not equate to a smooth transition for Kempton though, as she realized the challenges of being a collegiate athlete.
“Balancing my social, academic and basketball life, that was definitely a learning curve,” Kempton said. “I’d have 12 assignments that would normally take an hour to do in high school, but now that I’m in college, it takes me 12 days.”
On top of adjusting to this new lifestyle, there was also a culture shock happening on the court as well, as for the first time in her career, Kempton wasn’t recognized as the clear-cut best player on her team. Established veterans Laura Stockton and Katie Campbell had proven themselves as outstanding athletes at the collegiate level, which meant the newcomer from Post Falls would have to be patient for her shot at success. In very limited action, Kempton averaged 4.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game her freshman year.
The new role began to take a toll on her confidence, as she resorted to a passive play style and relied on other teammates and their abilities on the court.
“I didn’t trust in my own abilities,” Kempton said. “It was definitely a confidence drop off.”
Realizing the struggles her teammate was enduring, junior guard Jessie Loera took Kempton under her wing to show her the ropes of being a student athlete. They began communicating everyday with each other about catching up on schoolwork and how to properly manage the limited time that was available for academics and basketball. When Kempton would begin to feel stressed out, Loera would give her the encouragement she needed to push through heavy workloads. The upperclassman understood the difficulties of being a freshman in college, especially when making the transition from a small town.
With Loera attending Moses Lake High School, in Washington, her and Kempton had become familiar with one another through AAU tournaments and all-star games, but it was their relationship at GU that brought them together as friends.
“I wanted to be sure she was taken care of on and off the court and in the classroom,” Loera said. “I think her freshman year brought us much closer.”
With the encouragement of her close friend, Kempton began to regain that same level of confidence she had as a senior in high school. She began to make the most of her opportunities in her larger role as a scorer off the bench for the Zags, including a career-high 18 points against Purdue early in her sophomore season. By year's end, she trailed only Jenn Wirth for team leader in blocked shots and finished third in rebounds.
This season has seen much of the same from Kempton, who continues to be the spark off the bench for her Zags. Averaging 6.9 points per game, she has consistently hustled after every loose ball, fought for every rebound and played sound defense throughout the shortened season. And while she’s been a great shot blocker, her discipline on the court is equally impressive, as she has committed the fewest fouls on the team for the second consecutive year.
In the classroom, Kempton has adapted to the rigorous workload that comes with being a human physiology major. The advice she received from Loera taught her how to maximize the limited time she had between studying and practicing, all while trying to balance her social life on top of it all.
“I’ve become more confident as well as knowing what I can and can’t do,” Kempton said. “I feel like over these last few years I’ve trusted my abilities more.”
Loera, who has kept in touch with Kempton since graduating, has also noticed her friend’s maturation in the three seasons they spent as teammates.
“Mel has grown not just as a player, but also as a person,” Loera said. “I have seen her face many challenges and jump through many obstacles and come out even stronger.”
Next season will be yet another adjustment for Kempton, as she steps into a leadership role as one of the few seniors on the team. Unlike in years past, however, she’s excited to take on the responsibility and learn what it takes to be a leader for her fellow Zags. And of course, she gets to be the big fish in the pond again.