UT Men’s Basketball 78-77 Victory over Embry-Riddle
UT Men’s Basketball 78-77 Victory over Embry-Riddle

Wesley Simpson finds ‘perfect fit’ at Embry-Riddle

Embry-Riddle's Wesley Simpson (5) eclipsed 1,000 career points earlier this month. He's in his first season at Embry-Riddle and fifth year of college basketball.

DAYTONA BEACH — Two weeks after entering the transfer portal last spring, Wesley Simpson had a conversation with his mom.

He had enjoyed four standout years at Georgia College, earning Peach Belt All-Conference honors as a guard on the court and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics. But with a season of eligibility remaining, Simpson was searching for a new home. His old team was going through a coaching change, and the school didn’t offer the master’s program he wanted.

A few coaches reached out to him in the portal, but none handed him an immediate scholarship. So his mom, Rhonda, gave him an idea:

Come to Volusia County, where his parents live, and attend Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, where Rhonda works as an auditor. Simpson could grab his master’s degree in business administration — at a discounted rate because of his mother’s position — and try to walk onto the basketball team.

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“If all else fails,” she told him.

Simpson thought about the plan. As fate would have it, Eagles head coach Steve Ridder called just two days later.

“I’m a believer, and I think God kind of brought me here,” Simpson said.

Where’s home?

Simpson pinged around as a kid. Tallahassee, Germany, Washington and Georgia — he hit all of them before he finished middle school due to his dad’s job in the military. They eventually settled in McDonough, Georgia, where Simpson stayed through high school.

But for many years, he spent holidays like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas in DeLand, where his mother is originally from and her side of the family still resides.

While Simpson was attending Georgia College, his parents relocated to DeLand to be close to them, so his visits to the region continued.

Ridder didn’t know that when he picked up his phone last spring. He learned of Simpson through Garrick Respress, Simpson’s old AAU coach. Repress helped Ridder land Elijah Jenkins, one of the best student-athletes in Embry-Riddle program history, a few years earlier.

“He is truly the epitome of the student, person, player,” Ridder said of Jenkins. “So when you say you’re an AAU coach and Elijah Jenkins played under you, you have some credibility with me.”

In his last year at Georgia College, Simpson averaged 14 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. Respress told Ridder that. He also said Simpson was the greatest leader he’d ever coached. Ridder was sold.

He contacted Simpson, and the two started talking. The conversation eventually turned to Simpson’s family, and he mentioned his parents in DeLand where Ridder and his family once lived. The coach ate it up.

Then, Simpson told Ridder about his mom’s job at Embry-Riddle. The coach beamed again.

“It was almost like, ‘Now, what else are you going to tell me? That we’re related or something?’” Ridder said.

Ridder proposed his own idea: Come for an official visit. If it goes well, Simpson would likely leave campus with a scholarship offer. And worst-case scenario, it would be a chance to see his parents for a few days.

Simpson said OK. He verbally committed on the final day of his visit and decided not to travel to any other schools.

“Of course, when you get here, it’s hard to turn that guy down,” Simpson said. “It’s hard to turn this campus down. I met the guys, and it was just like being dropped in this perfect situation. It couldn’t really get much better.”

Since transferring to Embry-Riddle

Simpson signed the official transfer paperwork in June while interning for the Federal Reserve in Omaha, Nebraska. He arrived in Daytona Beach in August and got an apartment with a teammate 30 minutes from his parents’ house.

He made an immediate impression.

Embry-Riddle recruits internationally. This year, the Eagles’ roster includes players from Maryland, Michigan, Spain, Serbia and more. But before Simpson, Ridder never had a graduate student transfer in and suit up for only one year while pursuing his master’s. He tries to bring in players to stay for four or five years. And with a talented cast of returners from last season, he was careful about who he added to the mix.

“So when this kid literally dove on the floor, got a loose ball and tipped it to his teammates during our workouts, took a charge, made an extra pass, called our guys by their names, (we knew Simpson was a great fit),” Ridder said.

Simpson earned a starting role out of preseason camp. But in early November, he suffered a small ankle fracture and missed two games. He came off the bench for most of the month.

Since December began, he’s rediscovered his grove. On Dec. 7 against Lynn, Simpson started for the first time since the season-opener and recorded his first double-digit scoring total (11 points) in an Embry-Riddle uniform.

“It was a mental thing, a physical thing, an emotional thing,” Simpson said. “I was like, ‘OK, now I’m acclimated into Embry-Riddle basketball.’ I was getting in the gym more. I had a successful performance at Lynn. We had a couple guys get injured that day, and we got a good team win at home. I was fully getting involved with the guys in the program.

“I think that was like the week where I was like “I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I’m excited to be here, and I can’t want to see what’s going on the next couple of months.’”

In the two games since Lynn, he put up a season-high 12 points against Thomas University and followed up by playing a season-high 23 minutes and eclipsing 1,000 career points against Tusculum.

“I think it’s been a great marriage, a great fit,” Ridder said. “I think he will also tell you he has a lot more better basketball in front of him … He’s going to be very valuable these next 90 days, no question about it.”

For the next 90 days, Embry-Riddle is going to be chasing a championship. Ridder likes what this team has shown. The Eagles, currently sitting at 9-2, jumped all the way to No. 13 in the national Division II rankings in late November before losing two straight contests. They return to the court off a two-week break at 6 p.m. Friday at the ICI Center against Barry.

Just like every home game this season, Simpson will have his own cheering section in the stands. Usually, about 10 family members show up. Just another perk.

“It couldn’t have been any more true,” Simpson said. “And perfect.”

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