The offer to play Division-I basketball at South Carolina Upstate didn't come until late in the recruiting process while Riley Popplewell was in the midst of helping lead South Central to its third straight Porter County Conference Tournament title three years ago, but she's more than happy that it did.
Popplewell, who was named as the Big South Conference's 2018-19 Scholar Athlete of the Year earlier this week as a perfect 4.0 student as a education major in the elementary education field, was humbled by the recognition after a season where she led the Spartans in rebounding per game (7.9) and was second on the team in scoring at 11.3 points per contest.
"At first, I was very surprised," Popplewell said on Friday. "It's always a surprise, I think, to be named for something like that or given that honor. I was really thankful that they recognized me. It's a great feeling not only being recognized for your athletics, but for both that and academics. It's really a great feeling. I'm very thankful for those that helped me."
Her grade point average could be chalked up to not only Popplewell's hard work off the hard wood and on her classwork, which includes a desire to become a coach someday, but the Upstate coaching staff keeping plenty of eyes on players' grades throughout the season.
"The coaches definitely stay on with that," Popplewell said. "They give us grade sheets to get filled out, but also, I've had a ton of help from our wonderful professors. Everyone is so helpful and they help me make up stuff when I have to miss it and helping me plan in advance because of being on the road so much and missing a lot of class."
It was a difficult season for Popplewell and her team as a unit. Upstate finished 7-23 and was eliminated in the first round of the conference tournament by Charleston Southern on Tuesday night, but it was a rebuilding year of sorts for Popplewell and the Spartans. That included a new role for the former Satellite as one of the older and more experienced rotation players for coach Tammy George.
"With junior year, you're really getting into the important classes of the education major," Popplewell said. "I'm in the classroom a lot. That work stepped up a lot and it was definitely harder. On the floor, you're looked to more because you're not an underclassmen anymore. We had a lot of underclassmen (five freshmen and sophomores) and new players. There were some shoes to fill, which brings some added pressure knowing that you have to make an added impact this year."
Despite the tough season in the win-loss column, her coach's confidence in her hasn't wavered.
"Riley is a true example of a student athlete. She excels both on the court and off. One of the toughest, hard-working players I have ever been around," George said.
Popplewell's journey to the northwest portion of South Carolina brought some doubt and discussion because of how far she was from home before she committed to USC Upstate, but it's a path she's glad she followed.
"It's been great," Popplewell said on her three years at Upstate. "I went from not even knowing if I was going to play college basketball to getting this Division-I offer way, way late and what I thought was way too far from home, but I'm glad I took this chance. I really like this school. I really like my teammates. We really get along great on and off the court. I'm really enjoying it all."
Although she's been away for three seasons now, she's still kept tabs on the program she left after being named the Herald Argus' Player of the Year after her senior season at South Central. Her cousin, McKenzie Hudspeth, was a part of the team this season that won the school's first girls basketball sectional title since the 2004-05 season.
"It's awesome," Popplewell said of S.C.'s continued success. "Every Christmas break, we get a few days off and I always catch at least one game. It's always great to see the younger girls, including my cousin. It's great to see those girls who came in to practice with us when I was in school and those that I watched in middle school grow up and become great players. It's an awesome team and it's great that South Central's doing well even after my class and I left."
The Satellites community hasn't forgotten about her in her time away from Union Mills either.
"Small-town love is real," Popplewell said with a laugh. "The amount of support I've gotten being so far away, even people coming all the way here to a game or something, to make the trip to see me play, it's truly amazing."