Ralph and Elizabeth: Kitleys are a basketball family

Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 23, 2022

By Mike London

SUMMERFIELD — Ralph Kitley is officially retired, but the former high school principal and Wake Forest basketball player recently accepted an interim position with Rowan-Salisbury schools.

It’s given the 6-foot-10 Kitley a chance to return to Rowan County three times a week. He’s reconnected with old places and old faces from his nights as a mid-1980s North Rowan star.

Most of the people he encounters ask about Kitley’s daughter, Elizabeth, a 6-foot-6 Virginia Tech junior who has blossomed into one of the best college players in the country.

“What’s it like to sit in the stands and watch her play … well, it’s a pretty incredible feeling,” Kitley said. “It’s fulfilling because you want your children to become all they can become. Elizabeth is special.  I can say that while being as objective as I possibly can be as her dad.”

Elizabeth had sort of an off game on Thursday — only seven rebounds to go with her 27 points in a 75-65 win against Pittsburgh. That broke a long string of double-double performances.

Playing at home in Blacksburg on Tuesday against rival Virginia, she had 24 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks — and Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said she didn’t play all that well.

Expectations for her are high. She averages 19.3 points (on 55.6-percent shooting) and 10.6 rebounds and has been ACC Player of the Week four times.

Seriously, four times.

Her story starts with Ralph. He was a Christmas present — born on Christmas Eve in 1967.

His father, Marsden Kitley, was a Methodist minister. When he became the new pastor at Central United Methodist in Spencer in the summer of 1983, the family relocated. Ralph was 15 and had just performed well in a camp at Wake Forest. He was a Duke fan. That came from watching Mike Gminski play for the Blue Devils in the late 1970s. Kitley was smart enough to know he couldn’t succeed in basketball just by being the tallest guy on the court. He ran miles and jumped rope as her prepared for his sophomore season with the North Rowan Cavaliers.

North had Andrew Mitchell, Joe Davis, Jimmy Kesler, Mike Mitchell and Jeff Holshouser in 1983-84, and coach Bob Hundley eased Kitley into the mix for a 22-7 team. Ralph averaged 6.9 points, with a high of 18 against Davie County.

Kitley made serious strides as a junior in the 1984-85 season. North was led by Kesler, Antione Sifford, Kitley and Andre Godfrey, went 22-6 and won the 3A North Piedmont Conference. Kitley averaged 12.9 points.

In November 1985, Kitley signed with Wake Forest. He was the first recruit to sign with new Demon Deacons coach Bob Staak, who had turned around the Xavier program before tackling the challenge of winning in Winston-Salem.

North’s 1985-86 season is legendary. Sifford, Kesler, Kitley, Eric Hill and Tim Mitchell keyed a 29-2 team coached by Hundley. The losses were by one point to South Meck and Thomasville.

North won the 2A state championship in the new Dean Smith Center. Kitley averaged 13.5 points and 11.0 rebounds. In the 74-69 state championship game win against Ayden-Grifton, he produced 17 and 14 and was voted MVP. He made All-State teams.

Kitley was athletic enough in high school that he played tennis for the Cavaiers. He could run the floor at 225 pounds and make mid-range shots. Wake Forest coaches envisioned him playing forward, not center.

He was chosen for the East-West All-Star Game in the summer of 1986, but was unable to play in the game because of back issues.

Those back issues would plague him at Wake Forest.

He played sparingly as a freshman backup center in a loaded ACC. Wake was led by senior guard Muggsy Bogues, but the Demon Deacons went 3-13 in the ACC and lost five overtime games. Kitley had more fouls (47) than points (42), but he showed promise in a late-season game against N.C. State. He had 12 points and nine rebounds in that one.

Kitley’s sophomore season was, by far, his best. He was the starting center and averaged 7.0 points and 6.3 rebounds, while shooting 53.4 percent. He had 15 rebounds against Campbell and 14 more against Purdue. In a late-season game against the Wolfpack at Reynolds Coliseum, he piled up 22 points and 12 rebounds in an 86-82 loss.

Things were looking up, but Staak cut Kitley’s playing time in half his junior season, although he still started some games.

The same was true for his senior season. Dave Odom had replaced Staak and Joel Coliseum had become Wake Forest’s new homecourt, but Kitley’s role stayed about the same. He started nine games, and his job was defending the post. He posted modest averages of 1.6 points and 3.0 rebounds.

Kitley wasn’t sure what was next. He got a chance to play professionally in Germany and Brazil before he launched in career in education as a teacher and coach.  He assisted legend Howard West with the R.J. Reynolds boys team.

He earned a master’s degree from Gardner-Webb University and transitioned to administration in Guilford County. Most of his years were spent as an assistant principal and principal at Northwest Guilford. From 2009 until he retired in 2020, he was Northwest Guilford’s principal.

Retirement provided the opportunity to follow his daughter’s career. The Kitleys flew to Wisconsin. but they basically drive to every game, even if it’s at Notre Dame or somewhere in the Sunshine State. The only Hokie games they’ve missed during Elizabeth’s time with the team were in a tournament in Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth was tall and well coordinated at an early game.

“I coached her rec ball teams,” Kitley said. “She played basketball, volleyball and softball for years, but it was clear when she was in fourth or fifth grade that softball was the sport she liked the best. So I became that softball dad.”

When Elizabeth was a 6-foot-2 rising freshman at Northwest Guilford, there was a fork in the road.

AAU basketball coach Tom King had a daughter (Cayla King) who was a very good player and the same age as Elizabeth. King assured Ralph that Elizabeth’s future was in basketball.

“Tom told me she’s got good hands and good feet and she’s 6-foot-2,” Ralph said. “He told me to talk to Elizabeth about putting more time in on basketball.”

Ralph did talk to Elizabeth. She’s polite, but she basically said, “No way.” Her inner circle of friends was her softball buddies.

“I told Tom the next day that Elizabeth wanted to stick with softball and he was pretty disgusted with me,” Ralph said. “I told him that I talked to her. He said, ‘You need to go talk to her again.'”

The second time around, Elizabeth gave in. She made a commitment to basketball and the strong Greensboro Gaters AAU program.

“The thing about Elizabeth is that once she was in, she was all-in,” Ralph said. “She doesn’t do anything half-way. She threw herself into basketball.”

In their sophomore and junior seasons at Northwest Guilford, Elizabeth Kitley and Cayla King won 4A state championships.

In 2017, Elizabeth joined her father in an elite fraternity, as MVP of a state championship game.

“A reporter named J.P. Mundy knew about the connection and asked Elizabeth about her dad being an MVP in the interview room,” Kitley said. “She said, ‘Well, my dad was MVP as a senior. I did it as a sophomore.'”

There was a serious recruiting struggle for Elizabeth.

“The first day of September her junior year was the first day colleges could call her and she had 40 or 50 calls,” Kitley said.

Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks did the best job. He’d done his homework.

Elizabeth’s sister, Raven, is autistic, and they have a special relationship. Brooks went out of his way to be kind to Raven. He recruited Raven almost as hard as he did Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Cayla King both committed to Virginia Tech.

“Elizabeth took 24 hours to call every coach that recruited her to let them know her decision and to thank them,” Kitley said. “When she got on the phone with Jen Hoover at Wake Forest,  it was getting really emotional. Elizabeth thought she had let me down by not going to Wake Forest, but that wasn’t the case, at all. I wanted her to go where she wanted to be.”

The rest is history.

Elizabeth was ACC Freshman of the Year in 2019-20. She started every game for the Hokies and averaged 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.

“She scores 27 points in her first game,” Kitley said with a chuckle. “Beat my career high in her first game.”

She averaged 18.2 points and 10.4 rebounds as a sophomore. She had a 20-rebound game and two 30-point games. She was first team All-ACC.

But she’s still evolving.

“When I was a kid, we played more basketball than kids do now, played lots of pickup games, but kids now work more at basketball,” Kitley said. “Elizabeth’s work ethic is unbelievable, and she practices with a chip on her shoulder.  She’ll practice with the team and then she’ll go through an extra individual workout. That’s why her game is constantly expanding.”

Her father is happy about moving farther out, because when she stays in the low block, she gets double-teamed, knocked around, beaten up.

She’s shooting efficiently from mid-range now, showing more versatility and showing her passing skills. She made a pass out of a trap to a cutter for the key bucket on Thursday.

She had 34-point games against George Washington and Florida State and is on the watch list for national awards.

Elizabeth has made ACC all-academic teams and wants to go to med school, but it’s looking like med school may be deferred for a while. Her basketball career is certain to extend past college if that’s the direction she chooses.

“She’s an humble kid who’s never sought any attention,” Kitley said. “But she keeps getting better, and she’s also got some very talented teammates.”

Virginia Tech is 14-4 overall and 6-1 and in second place in the ACC. The Hokies visit the ACC’s top team, fourth-ranked N.C. State, today at 4 p.m.

That leads to another fascinating part of the story.

N.C. State’s star is 6-foot-5 All-American Elissa Cunane, who played on two 3A state championship teams at Northern Guilford, while Elizabeth was winning two 4A state titles at Northern Guilford. Both tall blondes are from the town of Summerfield, north of Greensboro. They were AAU teammates and they played against each other twice in high school.

They have been close friends for years, but for a couple of hours on Sunday, they won’t be.