When Charliss Ridley signed her letter of intent to play basketball at Indiana in 1999, the highly regarded recruit had never heard of the Columbia College women’s basketball team.
That is because the team did not exist.
Ridley, now the Cougars’ starting forward, transferred to the school last season after unsatisfying stints at Indiana and Missouri. She said she finally feels comfortable in Columbia College’s small, three-year-old program.
Ridley, the defending American Midwest Conference MVP, has the Cougars off to a 10-4 start and is leading the team with 17.8 points per game.
The all-time leading scorer at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School in Illinois, Ridley said she never pictured herself finishing her college career at a small school.
“If you would have told me five years ago that I’d end up at an NAIA school, I would have asked what NAIA meant,” Ridley said.
She said she was eager to play at Indiana and Missouri but things just didn’t click with the larger schools. She played only five minutes during the 2002-2003 season with the Tigers and decided to leave the team.
“It just felt like it wasn’t working out,” she said.
“I wasn’t happy and I felt like I couldn’t grow as a person and as a player like I wanted to,” Ridley said.
After leaving the team at Missouri, Ridley said she wasn’t sure if she would play basketball again.
“I wasn’t sure if my basketball career was over or not,” she said. “I was only a semester away from graduating from MU with a business management degree and had no plans of transferring.”
Ridley said that all changed when she returned home for winter break in 2002.
“My mother was looking on the internet and she came across Columbia College and was screaming,” Ridley said. “I ran into the room and said, ‘What are you screaming for?’ and she said ‘Columbia College is right down the street from MU, they have a basketball team and a business school.’”
Ridley contacted Columbia College coach Mike Davis, and after completing the year at MU, decided to give basketball one more try, this time as a Cougar.
“I really liked him (Davis) and the program right away,” Ridley said. “The girls on the team had only positive things to say. The school looked at my transcripts and said everything would transfer fine.”
Ridley’s transition to Columbia College presented one huge hurdle though. She tore her right ACL in the Show-Me State Games in August right before school started.
“I was devastated,” Ridley said. “I was so looking forward to coming into the program right away and playing. It was a huge setback.”
Ridley missed the first 11 games of the 2003-2004 season and the Cougars went 6-5 during that span.
Ridley scored 20 points in a 78-77 overtime victory against Spalding University in only her third game back. Her teammates said they felt her presence.
“As soon as she started to play, you could see the team turning around a little bit,” senior Lisa Kowalewski said.
Ridley led the team in scoring with 18.6 points per game, but Kowalewski said Ridley contributed more than just points.
“She would draw a double team and that would open everybody else up,” Kowalewski said. “Not only did she contribute on the scoring end, but she made everybody else better, too.”
With Ridley in the lineup, the team won 22 of its remaining 25 games, including the first NAIA tournament game in Cougar women’s basketball history.
Davis said Ridley’s intelligence and mental toughness are a few of the intangibles she brings to the court.
“Her high level of confidence translates to the other girls because they know Charliss can take a little bit of weight off their shoulders,” he said. “Another thing everyone doesn’t know about Charliss that she is a 4.0 student. We gain a little extra because of her ability to think on the floor.”
Ridley said Columbia College is the type of school she spent three years searching for.
“There was no other situation that was quite like Columbia College,” she said. “Being down the street from all my old MU buddies is great. I also know where everything is and don’t have to get situated.”
The location of Columbia College was a draw for Ridley, but she said the school’s family-like atmosphere is what has set Columbia College apart from her other schools.
“Bigger is not always better,” she said. “It’s definitely a family here, the Cougar family. You know everyone on a first name basis.”
Ridley said her faith has helped her through tough decisions and injuries.
“I look back and it’s been frustrating at times along the way through injuries and transfers but I prayed to God a lot for guidance,” she said. “Now that I’m here, it has been worth it. I feel so appreciated by the college and the students and the coaching staff. It’s a great feeling.”