Since she was little, Poplar Bluff's Kiley Bess was driven to compete

In this Jan. 28, 2019 file photo, Poplar Bluff's Kiley Bess dribbles against New Madrid Central at the Senior High Gym in Poplar Bluff.
DAR file/Brian Rosener

The namesakes of the Bess Activity Center at Three Rivers College are no relation to Kiley Bess. Her father and grandfather worked there, so naturally she was there a lot.

“She thought the Bess Activity Center actually meant it was her gym,” said Kiley’s father Brian Bess, the assistant coach of the Three Rivers men’s basketball team.

“And now with the new arena, she wanted to be the first one to score and the first one to do this and so she’s been in there a lot too.”

Now about to start her senior basketball season at Poplar Bluff High School, Kiley recently signed her National Letter of Intent to play in a bigger arena at Saint Louis University.

She already holds the Poplar Bluff girls program record for points in a career, starting this season with 1,686 points, and set a school record as a sophomore with a 50-point game. Bess, who can become the school’s second 2,000-point scorer this season, is looking to add some different accomplishments to her stellar resume with her teammates.

“I love them to death,” she said. “I can’t wait for the season to start. It’s going to be a good season.”

The Mules, who host Roosevelt tonight to start their season, return all five starters from a team that reached the district final for a third straight year.

Basketball, however, was not Kiley’s first instinct hanging out in the gym.

“I first thought I was going to be a cheerleader and then I don’t know what happened,” Kiley said. “I just started practicing and fell in love.”

It’s not like she had much of a choice, a basketball is likely on the Bess family crest.

Her mom and dad both played in high school, as did her older brother and, of course, her grandfather has the most wins of any college basketball coach.

“I’ve always grown up in a basketball family,” Kiley said. “I don’t remember a time where we haven’t had a conversation about basketball.

“My grandpa has just been such a good influence on my life. Making me the greatest basketball player I can be and I just give him and my dad all the credit.”

Gene Bess, now in his 50th season as head coach of the Three Rivers College men’s basketball team, said Kiley deserves the credit.

“She’s just one of those people that, to this day, she likes to shoot,” Gene said. “So she has a love for the game.”

Kacey Bess, Kiley’s mother, recalls someone saying that of course Kiley would be good at basketball given the fact that she has her own gym.

“That isn’t correct,” Kacey said. “You’ve got to have the desire to go to the gym. In Poplar Bluff, there’s plenty of gyms that if a kid wants to go, they can go.”

Kiley always wanted to go to the gym and never cut corners in it, her brother Kolby said.

If Kiley was told to make 10 free throws in a row, she would not stop until she did just that.

“She might get to eight in a row and miss one,” Kolby said. “Some people would say that didn’t count. They counted for her.”

When the Bess kids couldn’t get to the Bess Activity Center, they made their own gym in the family’s basement. It started with a Nerf basketball and net and then a goal that was seven feet tall.

“I taped the lines up, free-throw line and everything,” Kolby said. “I would dunk on her. Boy, she didn’t like that.”

Said Kiley, “He never takes it easy on me. He’s not the person to let me win, so he’s given me that aggressive mentality.”

Kolby does not take credit for that.

“We were so competitive that nobody wanted to lose,” Kolby said.

That wasn’t just in basketball.

“Even when the kids were little, like if you’re playing Candyland, you don’t let them win,” Kacey said.

Brian Bess scored 623 career points for the Mules and set a season assist record of 256 during the 1989 season. He went on to play for the Raiders.

Kacey Bess, who attended Lesterville High School where she was a cheerleader and valedictorian, played volleyball at Three Rivers.

“(Kacey) coached her for Upward basketball when (Kiley) was in kindergarten,” Brian recalls. “She got to play in the first and second grade league. Kiley dominated. They had to tell her to stop, don’t score every time down.”

In the first grade, Kiley was moved up to the third and fourth grade league.

“We had to go to travel ball because she dominated the church league,” Brian said.

At the age of 6, Kiley started attending the Gene Bess Basketball Camp when the youngest players were three years older.

“I would go to grandpa’s camps and play the boys,” Kiley said. “And I just migrate to be with the A group so I had to grow up fast on the game.

“I had a lot to learn and playing an older group really shows me what I had to do to improve.”

Kacey recalls when Gene first started teaching Kiley how to shoot she had to stay close to the rim until she perfected that shot.

“He would not let her shoot any 3s,” Kacey said. “For years she never even got to that point.”

Last season as a junior, Kiley was the top free-throw shooter in the SEMO Conference, also earning the scoring award, and the co-player of the year. She sank 82.95% of her foul shots and averaged 26.85 points in conference play.

As a freshman, Bess scored 20 points in her first career varsity game and had 10 more games of 20 or more points.

Her career high for the Mules was 30 before a game her sophomore season at Sikeston on Jan. 18, 2018. Bess sank 15 of 31 shots from the field, including 2 of 5 from 3-point range, and was 18 of 20 from the free-throw line for 50 points.

She also had 14 rebounds and six steals while sinking two foul shots to force overtime in an 80-76 Poplar Bluff win.

Bess topped Mary Kalich’s school record of 45 points in a game and got nearly halfway to Kalich’s career scoring mark of 1,635.

Bess needed 51 games to reach 1,000 points and passed Kalich in the final regular season game of her junior year.

“She’s just had a really, really good first three years and I’m excited to see this next year,” Mules coach John David Pattillo said.

Bess also finished with the most career kills in volleyball after leading the Mules with 210 this season to put her over 600.

Mules volleyball coach Aimee Simmers said Bess was the type of player she could trust on the court at all times.

“I literally could put her anywhere without blinking an eye,” Simmers said. “The adjustment she had on the court was impeccable.”

Bess said she started playing volleyball to help with her jumping ability. It was also a way to be with her friends when basketball season ended.

“I didn’t want to just focus on basketball,” Bess said. “Yeah, I practice basketball every day, but if I didn’t play other sports I didn’t really interact with all my teammates that aren’t even on the basketball team.”

Bess also played softball, soccer and was a swimmer. She set a conference record for the 8-under age division in the 25-yard butterfly of 16.75 seconds.

“Kiley has one of the most competitive attitudes I have ever coached,” Simmers said. “After we had a rough weekend, Kiley was the first to say she was doing whatever it would take to win.

“She’s an extremely talented athlete with a great mentality.”

Pattillo, now in his sixth year as the girls coach, also coached the only basketball player to score 2,000 points in school history, Tyler Hansbrough, during his nine seasons as boys coach.

“I got to coach quite a few competitors as far as that goes, but you know she’s as good as any,” Pattillo said.

Kiley admits she’s a very competitive person.

“I want to win,” she said. “But I have fun doing it. … I really enjoy playing and now that I have the recruiting process done, I can just focus on my love.”

Bess made a commitment to play at Saint Louis University after the Mules got an invitation to play there this summer as a team.

Bess said she went to SLU for summer camps when she was younger and was impressed with the academics and coaching staff.

Gene Bess said it’s a good place for Kiley to be with “excellent education” and “I love what I hear about the coaches.”

“You know,” Gene says, “if she weighed 50 more pounds she’d be at UConn.”

Gene rarely misses Kiley’s games and says she’s his favorite player to watch at any level.

In another twist of basketball fate, Pattillo’s father, Roger, was an assistant basketball coach for Gene at Three Rivers.

“She was blessed with John David,” Gene said. “His daddy coached with me and now I get to watch his son coach my granddaughter.”

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