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South Kitsap's 'competitor' looks to guide school to state
He remembers attending myriad South Kitsap basketball games, mesmerized by the talents of Tippy Burk and L.P. Neloms.
And for the first time since that duo graduated six years ago, senior Tom Simpson and his teammates have a realistic shot of advancing to the Class 4A state basketball tournament.
South (10-4 overall, 5-1 4A Narrows) entered Wednesday game against Bellarmine Prep just one-half game behind the Lions in league as the Wolves aim for their first state-playoff appearance since 2006. An ankle injury Neloms suffered derailed South’s state aspirations in 2007 when it entered the 4A West Central District playoffs as the top seed.
Simpson acknowledges that he and the rest of the seniors lack the natural athletic ability of Neloms, who now is an assistant coach for South after playing at Olympic College, and Burk. But he hopes the program’s seven seniors can supplement the talent of arguably the team’s two best players — junior guards Caulin Bakalarski and Ryley Callaghan.
“This group of seniors has been playing together since sixth or seventh grade,” Simpson said. “The camaraderie on this team is awesome. I’ve never really played basketball with any other players.”
South coach John Callaghan said Simpson is one of the most competitive athletes he has guided in 15 seasons with the Wolves. He said Simpson even strives to finish first when the team is running laps in the gym.
“The one word that comes to mind is competitor,” Callaghan said. “He competes in everything. It resonates throughout the team.”
Simpson, who maintains a 3.5 grade-point average, hopes he has cultivated leadership skills and sound decision making from his parents. His mother, Kathryn, is a member of South Kitsap School District’s Board of Directors, and also works as a management analyst for the Navy. Simpson’s father, John, is an engineer at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Given his mother’s prominence in the community, Simpson said he strives set a strong example and stay out of trouble.
“Teachers definitely know who my mom is,” said Simpson, adding that he is grateful that both of his parents are involved given their professional commitments. “I’m definitely used to it by now.”
Simpson already is contemplating possible careers, including engineering. He takes Advanced Placement Calculus at South and said he always has been strong at math. But Simpson also wants to keep his options open when it comes to selecting a major.
After all, a year ago Simpson could have envisioned himself playing guard or outfield at a college. But after longtime friend Nic Stoner told him he would play football last spring during English class, Simpson made a spot decision that he would join him despite not playing since ninth grade. Even though neither played football in 2011, both Simpson and Stoner joined classmate Devon Newquist as starters in new coach Eric Canton’s three-receiver standard set. Simpson enjoyed the experience enough that he hopes to continue playing at a Division III Northwest Conference school, such as Puget Sound or Whitworth, next year.
Simpson has not set a timetable for making a decision. In addition to classwork, he also has been transitioning between sports. Simpson plans to be a three-sport athlete this season — he pitches and plays outfield in baseball — but previously focused on honing his hardwood skills during the fall. This season, Simpson found himself playing his final football game and first basketball contest during the same month.
“The transition was a little slow at first,” he said. “But it’s kind of like riding a bike — it comes back if you’ve been playing that long.”
Simpson acknowledges that evoking the memories of Burk and Neloms won’t be easy as the Wolves wrap up the regular season. After tonight’s contest at Central Kitsap, South still has another road challenge Feb. 1 at Olympia before it completes league play a week later at home against Stadium, which beat the Wolves 64-54 on Dec. 12.
“There’s still a long way to go before the end of the season,” Simpson said. “But I’ve talking with people around the community and they’re happy to see South playing as we were in the mid 2000s. It’s really fun.”