Unassuming shooting star

Fame may not agree with her, but Chico State’s Amber Simmons has earned it anyway

LABOR OF LOVE<br>Even in a pre-season workout, Amber Simmons makes every drive to the basket count. “She works hard,” says teammate Cory Edwards (far left).

Even in a pre-season workout, Amber Simmons makes every drive to the basket count. “She works hard,” says teammate Cory Edwards (far left).

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

About Amber
Year: Junior
Height: 5’11
Major: Business

At Chico High: All-state and section champion in basketball; also lettered in volleyball and track.

At Chico State: Career scoring average of 17.1 points per game and shooting percentage of .535--both No. 2 in school history. Also averaging 9.95 rebounds, 1.4 blocked shots and 2.2 steals per game. First Kodak/WBCA All-American in school history.

Record book: No. 1 in single-season points (605) and rebounds (309) at Chico State. Enters the season just 723 points, 307 rebounds, 64 blocks and 83 steals from career records.

With a quick pivot and a powerful turn, Amber Simmons sliced through the lane. She squared her shoulders as she neared the basket, banked the ball into the hoop, then glided along the baseline. It was a picture-perfect layup, bringing to bear her athleticism, skill and intensity—the kind of play you would expect from a star player with a tournament run at stake.

Except this particular play didn’t come in a game. It didn’t come in a scrimmage, or in a full-on practice.

Simmons put on this display during a preseason workout, with only assistant coaches and a few other people watching, and nothing on the line except her personal sense of accomplishment.

Of course, she has made textbook layups in games. Many of them. You don’t become an All-American forward without a knack for finding the basket.

The fact that she would replicate this effort in a basic drill says a lot about Amber Simmons—and why, almost to her embarrassment, she has become a bonafide star athlete, recognized beyond her hometown campus of Chico State University.

By any measure of success, Simmons had a sophomore year for the ages.

In 2005-06, she set Chico State’s record for points (605) in a season, with an average of 18.9 per game. She led the California Collegiate Athletic Association in rebounds and blocked shots, yet had the quickness to lead her team in steals. Simmons became the Wildcats’ first Kodak/ WBCA All-American, following all-conference and all-region honors.

More important to her, though, are the team milestones her excellence helped produce.

A year after losing in the regional finals, Chico State advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time, then to the Final Four, before losing to eventual national champion Grand Valley State.

The fact that the Wildcats went 28-4 and reached the Division II semifinals is all the more remarkable considering the graduation of point guard Kim Abts, the 2004-05 CCAA player of the year and an honorable-mention All-American who got a WNBA tryout.

“We had a lot of the pieces,” said Lynne Roberts, the team’s coach at the time, “but we lost Kim, our go-to player.”

Until another go-to player emerged.

The fact that that person turned out to be Simmons wasn’t wholly surprising. She was the conference freshman of the year after starting all 29 games she played, averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds a game.

But there’s a big difference between playing a supporting role and a starring role. Stars face double- and triple-teaming defenses. Stars get the ball in key moments. Stars feel the pressure of expectations. Stars are expected to lead.

Simmons is soft-spoken and understated. How would she become a leader?

“Good leaders, whether vocal or not, lead by example,” said Roberts, now the head coach at Division I University of the Pacific. “Good leaders also want what the coaches want. She’ll get frustrated when people aren’t working hard.”

Which brings us back to the cornerstone of her success.

ALL-AROUND ATHLETE<br>Combining speed and strength, Chico native Amber Simmons has dominated NCAA Division II competition and become her team’s leader.

Courtesy Of Chico State

Molly Goodenbour didn’t know much about Simmons when she took over for Roberts this summer. But she quickly learned all she needed to know when she saw her star player diving for loose balls during three-on-three games.

“The best part about Amber is right now she doesn’t know how good she can be,” Goodenbour said. “She’s been successful with competitiveness and athleticism. She has the potential to develop her offensive skill set, her defensive skill set, and get more basketball experience.

“She could be even better.”

And she wants to be. Simmons spent the off-season working on getting stronger and on “fundamental stuff.” Targets for refinement in her new coach’s estimation include footwork and perimeter skills. “She doesn’t think she knows everything,” Goodenbour said, which is why she takes even the most basic drills seriously.

Her teammates notice this. Ask fellow post player Cory Edwards to describe Simmons, and the first words you’ll hear are “hard working.”

“She never gives up,” Edwards added. “No matter what coaches or the opposing team throws at her, she’s just going to go after it.”

Her work ethic even caught the eye of men’s basketball coach Puck Smith.

“The moment she arrived, she was clearly an impact player,” said Smith, who has been at Chico State for 20 years. “During conditioning, she was one of the most fit players from the very beginning. That is one area [in which] most incoming freshmen are very behind.”

When Goodenbour says that “Amber literally walked across the street to be here,” she isn’t exaggerating.

Courtesy Of Chico State

Simmons, who turned 20 last week, has spent her life in Chico. She was born at Enloe Medical Center, and all four of her schools rest in a five-block radius: Citrus Elementary, Chico Junior High, Chico High and Chico State. “I’ve always lived by train tracks,” she said.

She comes from a big family—six siblings, the younger ones athletic like she is. She talks guardedly about her upbringing. She moved in with her grandparents when she was in eighth grade. Her parents are part of her life, she said—both supportive of her.

Eighth grade also was when she started playing basketball. Volleyball and track were part of her high school resume—in fact, she thought volleyball would be her ticket to college athletics. Unlike most sports phenoms, she did not play on Amateur Athletic Union or travel teams; rather, she spent her summers in Chico, playing with Chico High teammates and at Chico High basketball camps.

“I didn’t know much of anything else,” she said, and so she didn’t play at the marquee events where Division I prospects raise their profiles.

The national recruiters’ loss was the local recruiter’s gain. Roberts made the North State a priority, so she focused on players such as Redding’s Haley Ford and Chico’s Audi Spencer.

Oh, and of course Simmons, who got recruited by no one else and committed to Chico State in the fall signing period, before an all-state senior season in which she led Chico High to a section title.

“We wanted her to quietly sneak into Chico,” Roberts said.

And she did.

Roberts got a sense of her potential at a summer-camp session. Watching the action, she turned to her boss, Chico State Athletic Director Anita Barker, and said, “That kid has the potential to be the best player here if she stays motivated. She has it.”

Courtesy Of Chico State

Now Barker knows what she was talking about.

“We haven’t had many Amber Simmonses come through our program,” she said. “She’s a find. She really wanted to stay close [to home] … but I don’t think that would have happened if we didn’t get her early. Other people may have found her.”

Simmons didn’t come into Chico State with lofty aspirations. She had played with Spencer and against Abts and Ford, so she knew how good her teammates were, but really, “I just thought of it as a great experience,” she said.

During preseason workouts, her perspective changed—“it became apparent I might play a bit.” Her speed and power made up for any shortcomings in experience, and she fit well in Roberts’ uptempo style.

Chico State went 24-6 and advanced to the regional final, losing to Seattle Pacific. That pushed Simmons and her teammates the following season. They had a simple goal: win a regional title. That they did so by beating Seattle Pacific made the victory even sweeter.

At the Elite Eight, Simmons learned she was one of two sophomores to make the 10-player All-American team selected by the coaches’ association.

“That was like ‘Whoa!’ to me,” she said. “It makes you feel really good—successful. But it’s not something I’m all about.”

Indeed, attention is the part of success she has learned to accept but does not embrace.

In a small community like Chico, standout athletes find themselves thrust into a multimedia spotlight: TV, radio and newspapers. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming,” she said.

IN THE ZONE <br>Assistant coach Charlene Murphy helps Simmons hone her post moves.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“What sets Amber apart is she doesn’t buy into her hype,” Roberts said. “She is truly a humble player. … She puts other people first, not like the culture of today.”

That may be why teammates don’t resent her for the attention she gets.

“She deserves it,” Edwards said. “She works hard. And she makes it all about her teammates. She could be on SportsCenter and she wouldn’t tell you.”

The possibility that she could land on SportsCenter with another Final Four run may be her biggest impact on the Athletic Department.

“We don’t get the exposure of being on national TV and the national media limelight,” Barker said, “so the success of the program is what puts you on the map individually. The impact on the program with Amber involved is national awareness and respect.

“Women’s basketball on the West Coast at Division II hasn’t always gotten the respect it deserves. What this program has shown in the past two years is we deserve that national respect and awareness.

“What it’s done locally,” she added, “is get people excited about women’s basketball.” Case in point for Barker is a Friday-night in March when fans packed Acker Gym for a key game against Cal State Bakersfield the same evening that Chico and Pleasant Valley boys’ teams were playing for the CIF Northern Section title.

The gym should be packed for a number of games this year. The Chico State women’s team returns four starters: Simmons and Jennifer Borror in the post, Ford and Spencer on the perimeter. Coincidentally, the Wildcats have to replace their point guard, as they did before last season.

HOW SWEET IT IS!<br>A year after losing in the Sweet 16, Chico State celebrated its first regional championship and trip to the Elite Eight.

Courtesy Of Chico State

Simmons’ perspective has changed in two years. A good experience is no longer enough. She is gunning for a national championship.

“I think it’s totally possible. If we don’t get where we were last year, we underachieved.”

Roberts also thinks it’s possible—"I don’t think you can ever count out those kids.”

They will get a taste of high-level competition Nov. 2 in a scrimmage at Stanford (Goodenbour’s alma mater). They open the season Nov. 17 at home and plan to play through March 24, at Kearney, Neb., for the national championship game.

“I don’t want to look at last year as my breakout year,” Simmons said. “I want this year to be my breakout year.”

She’s working hard to make that happen.