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How an Unknown Basketball Star Now Shines on the National Stage

by M. B. Miller

Ariel Nickell with Coach Mills

At 5 feet 9 inches, Ariel Nickell is not an imposing figure, and if you were in a crowded room, you might miss her completely. She is a true “mountain girl” – quiet and humble, tough but feminine, and always ready to face whatever challenges are coming toward her down the road. 

Raised by a single mother in Tazewell, Tn., she learned what it was to be a strong woman firsthand. The fourth of five children born to Kim Gipfert, Nickell did what most do who have siblings: she fought to stand out.  She did it by keeping a basketball in her hands, and now, she is head and shoulders above every other player in the league.  No, check that: she’s better than any other player in the nation.

Ariel Nickell, an unheralded junior forward for tiny Alice Lloyd College, is leading the nation in scoring and rebounding.

“I’m not into the big-school atmosphere,” says Nickell, talking about why she chose to attend Alice Lloyd.  “And I’m all about my team. I look at the team record; not my personal records. I’m a role player like everyone else. We all win, or we all lose.” 

“That’s the beauty of her,” beams Coach John Mills about his star player. “She’s not after individual glory. She’s an unselfish, selfless, hardworking person. Her whole agenda is about the team. She’s called on to do what other players can’t do, and she works hard to be the best. She’s awful close to being there.”

Nickell currently leads all players in NAIA Division II in scoring (26 points per game), rebounding (12.7 rpg), and double-doubles (21). She also leads the United States Collegiate Athletic Association in points per game and in the overall amount of points scored (649). With help from stellar point guard Carla Booth, Nickell has guided the Lady Eagles to their first-ever bid in the USCAA National Championships, and, with a legitimate shot at winning the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Alice Lloyd could very well find itself competing in the NAIA’s big dance.

Speaking about Nickell’s importance to the team, Coach Mills puts it matter-of-factly, “She’s the difference in this team getting to the national tournament and our going out in the first round of the conference tournament.”

And all of this is being said about a young woman who had made up her mind not to play college basketball.

“Not many schools were looking at me,” Nickell explains.

That might be true, but she caught the sharp eye of Coach Mills while she was a junior post player at Tennessee’s Claiborne High. There was only one problem: Mills was visiting the school to recruit for Berea College’s men’s basketball team.

“The best player I saw that day wasn’t one of the guys,” Mills says. “Ariel was better than all of them.” 

The coach never forgot Nickell, and when he took over Alice Lloyd’s women’s basketball program, he knew who he needed to bring to Pippa Passes.

“Within the first five minutes of talking to him,” said Nickell, “I could tell that he was a good coach. I knew that I wanted to play for him.” 

This pairing of coach and student has been monumental. Not only is this current crop of Lady Eagles potentially the best team the College has ever put out onto the floor, but if her stats hold through next season, Ariel Nickell will become the best women’s basketball player in the history of Alice Lloyd College. A legend.

“I’d go so far as to say that she’s the most dominant player in the NAIA,” offers Coach Mills. And, then, just to drive the point home, “In Division I or II.”

Her teammate and best friend, Carla McDaniel, refers to her as an “outspoken leader” and asserts that she’s “confident, not cocky.”  She leads by example and never jockeys for any kind of personal recognition. In fact, she’s never really received much of that, even though it’s entirely deserved. This young woman is solid, built to last, and you should know her name.  Ariel Nickell – a student-athlete from Appalachia, loaded with talent and skills polished from years of hard work, and heart the size of a mountain.

The Lady Eagles play in the opening round of the KIAC Tournament on Saturday, February 23rd, at 2 PM. Tickets will be sold at the door at ALC’s Grady Nutt Athletic Center. Should Alice Lloyd win the conference (KIAC) title, they will play in the NAIA National Championships in Sioux City, Iowa (March 6-12th).