It was a Saturday afternoon in February, and the Lumberjacks were tied with only seconds left in a home match against Sacramento State University. The atmosphere in the Walkup Skydome was a different kind of energy. The crowd’s intensity escalated. Attendants were at the edge of their seats, nervously preparing themselves for the final moments of the game.
Sophomore forward Khiarica Rasheed made a critical move that gave the Lumberjacks possession. The team lined up for the inbound. An odd calmness hovered in the room as the crowd held their breath. The ball was in-bounded and each NAU player moved in a calculated frenzy as the clock expired.
Senior forward Kaleigh Paplow received the ball and moved inside. The 5-foot 8-inches forward took a leap to shoot the ball. It bounced off the back rim of the basket and fell through the net. A loud roar ensued and the Lumberjacks took home the win.
“We had composure; [Rasheed] took a huge charge,” Paplow said. “At the end of the game, we just executed a play that we run all the time.”
For Paplow, being a go-to player wasn't always something she was used to. But when it came time to play, everything fell in to place naturally.
“The biggest thing that’s changed for me [this season] is that I’ve become a go-to player offensively,” Paplow said. “Even in high school, I was one of the leading scorers but I’ve never had that kind of pressure or had to play that role.”
Paplow may not always be taking the game winning shot, but no shot from any NAU player this season has been a game winner without her presence on the court. She has played and started in all 26 games this season, ranking fifth in the Big Sky conference in average minutes played at 36.3 minutes per game.
Paplow is currently ranked 11th in scoring for the Big Sky conference and leads her team on multiple sides of the ball with a scoring average of 13.6 points per game along with 7.6 rebounds per game and 48 steals on the season. After looking at the facts, it's safe to say Paplow is an important factor in the teams success.
“[Paplow] is the glue that holds everyone together,” Rasheed said. “She does it all for us, she exerts a lot of energy and always focuses on ways to make everyone better.”
As one of the Lumberjacks’ reigning veterans, Paplow had to grow around a changing team. For her first two years, she played under former head coach Sue Darling, who finished her last season at NAU with a 9-21 record. Paplow feels the change in coaching staff with Loree Payne has been just as positive.
“Obviously, it was hard freshman and sophomore year and then going through different coaching changes and trying to adapt to different styles and different offenses and things like that,” Paplow said. “But I’d say I’m the happiest I have been with the coaching staff I’ve had the last two years.”
As a freshman, Paplow was quick to show potential, appearing in 23 games and starting in 11 of them. She put up a high of 36 points that season, which set the NAU single game freshman scoring record and tied for sixth place in school history for the most points in a game. Paplow was only getting started and quickly developed into a reliable player and a vital component to the team.
Since her freshman year, her role has changed in some ways. While maintaining her reputation as an all-around threat on the court and a leader by performance, Paplow had to step into a different, more vocal role for the Lumberjacks.
“Verbally I think [Paplow] definitely improved her leadership,” said NAU head coach Loree Payne. “Here’s a kid who, when we got her two years ago, I didn't think she wanted to be a captain. I think because it came with a little bit more responsibility, she wasn’t quite comfortable with the leadership tasks but she’s improved tremendously. It’s been so much fun watching her growth and to really reach her potential in that way.”
Paplow isn’t just a go-to player for her team, but a go-to friend for her teammates. She is there for her teammates on and off the court.
“When I'm not going hard, [Paplow] makes sure I pick it up and stuff like that,” Rasheed said. “We bond well off court too; we just have grown closer cause we’re into the same things. We watch the same shows and hang out a lot.”
Senior year, Paplow answered the call from her team and took on the heavy load of being an all-around go-to player and veteran leader with a smile on her face and a unique dynamic energy. Paplow's faith and family play a big role in her success.
“First and foremost, my faith and just keeping that strong is important,” Paplow said. “Also, keeping my family ties at home and having that support, just when things are difficult, is important.”
Paplow will lead the team through the remaining three game stretch of regular season play going into the Big Sky tournament. Paplow recorded a career high eight assists in their win Saturday March 2 against Montana State University where they defeated them 76-72 at home. I’m addition to her assist record, she also came away from Saturday’s game with two steals that pushed her to 10th in program history for career steals (158).
The Lumberjacks are currently 9-17 on the season and 5-12 in Big Sky Conference. Ranked ninth in the conference, they hope to win these last matches and earn a better position going in to the Big Sky Conference tournament March 11.
“We have an opportunity to finish really strong, we have only three games that, if we play to our potential we have a great chance to win,” Payne said. “For us, it’s really just focusing on the fundamentals. Fortunately, we have a whole week, this weekend and next to be able to get some practices in and work on some breakdown drills and some fundamental stuff that I think will help us.”
If you asked anyone on the team or in the stands what comes to mind when you think of Kaleigh Paplow, one word usually comes to mind.
“When I think about KP and you could see that the first time I met her, is really just her passion and her intensity and how much she loves the game of basketball,” Payne said. “She’s just so passionate and works so hard and that’s one thing, I’ve never had a player in my entire career work as hard as that kid does. She’s definitely a one-of-a-kind type of kid.”