In a rare moment of downtime, such as the dwindling seconds before her final softball game at McIntosh High School, Rikkelle Miller reflected on her journey.
It had been a long road for the uber-talented Fayette County High School senior athlete. From class president duties to spinning records under her stage name, DJ Swell Kel, she longed for a minute of solitude at the center of her first love—the softball field.
As she strapped on her catcher’s gear, she stopped to take it all in. Things would soon change for the incoming Grambling State recruit. This was her last time competing with her teammates.
“It hit home to me that it was my last high school softball game,” Miller said.
What followed next was something even Miller didn’t see coming. Every McIntosh fan rose from their seat and gave her a standing ovation. It was the ultimate compliment to her stellar career as a great player and ambassador of the game.
“I kind of wish that softball was at the end of the year like other states, so I could leave on that note,” Miller said. “It hurt to end my last high school game.”
The standing ovation at McIntosh was one of many signature moments for Miller this season. She dominated three sports (softball, basketball, and track and field) and left her mark in the classroom. She was the junior and senior class president, prom queen, Miss JROTC, and a talented chorus singer.
Miller also earned a treasure trove of accolades. She was the 2018 Hitter of the Year for softball, made the All-Region and All-County teams in basketball, and won a bronze and silver medal in the shot put and discus throw at the state meet.
She can now add one more piece of hardware to her resume: Miller is our 2018 Girls Athlete of the Year.
“I like doing it all and I have to stay busy to stay focused,” Miller said. “If I don’t, I know I may go with the wrong crowd. I just knew everything would pay off at the end of the day.”
Miller grew up in Fayette County and it wasn’t always easy. As the only girl among five older siblings, she had to work hard to establish herself. From a young age, she remembers sports being an outlet to stand out among the rest.
It all started in the front yard as she played basketball with her brothers. Their favorite game was called “Best of 10” as they each took turns firing 3-pointers from distance. The shots varied with complex angles from the street and by the garage door. The games didn’t always go her way, but it taught her how to deal with competition.
“I lost most of them, but now I can get them back as I have developed a shot,” Miller said jokingly. “I have always been in on the sports side.”
The family battles helped Miller develop her tenacious spirit on the field. At seven years old, she parlayed that untapped potential to the softball diamond. Every weekend, she would travel with her father, Rickey Miller, to Foundation Sports to get in quality practice time.
“We would go to facilities and get there around noon and we wouldn’t leave until about six or seven o’clock in the evening,” Rickey said. “We were just working out and I truly believe that all that hard work has finally paid off.”
The practice routine included a mix of hitting in the cage, fielding exercises, and weight training. After a couple sessions, Rickey knew she had the talent to go a long way.
“She developed the talent,” he said. “I tell the kids all the time you can have talent, but you need hard work with that talent. We spend a lot of time developing it so she can play up in high-pressure situations.”
The talent was showcased throughout little leagues and travel softball. Miller went from an unknown teenager to a star. In 2015, she entered Fayette County High School and immediately left a sizable impression.
From her first day on campus, Miller’s smile and energetic charisma were infectious. Students, teachers, and faculty were drawn to her helpful personality. When they saw her on the field, they were blown away with her talent.
“She has determination and confidence that you just don’t find in everybody,” Fayette softball coach Cassie Lawrimore said. “I didn’t realize how much of an anchor she was, not just in our program, but in our region.”
Miller set records throughout her time at Fayette. She even was talented enough to play on the boys’ baseball team. This season, she dominated on the softball diamond, the basketball court, and the track.
In softball, she had an eye-popping .833 batting average with 6 home runs and 19 RBIs in just 11 games. A catcher with a rocket-powered right arm, she also picked off 14 base runners. During basketball season, she shined with 13 points and 8 rebounds per game, and drained 75 three-pointers.
She finished her season with medals in the Class AAAAA State Track Meet. She threw 40 feet and 8 inches in the shot put. She also threw 133 feet and 9.75 inches in the discus throw.
“I have been here for over 20 years and there has never been an athlete to come through Fayette High School like this young lady,” Fayette girls’ basketball coach John Strickland said. “It is amazing to see what she can do as she has the ‘IT’ factor.”
Angel By Her Side
For as good as Miller has been on the field, it was her ability to deal with heartbreak that earned her the ultimate respect.
In 2016, Miller lost her mother to a sudden heart attack. The loss left her emotional and she almost let go of her athletic dreams.
“It’s been hard, and at one point I wanted to stop playing sports,” Miller said. “Then I remembered a conversation I had with her.”
Miller recalled her mother telling her to finish what you started. She had dreams of going to college and to inspire others. Miller said the conversation was a blessing from God and the acknowledgment that her angel was right by her side.
“From that day forward, it made me be more of a positive person and look at the brighter side,” Miller said.
Days after her mother’s passing, Miller found herself back in the basketball gym. She knew sports were her outlet and her presence inspired everyone. Strickland remembered telling her to go home to be with her family.
Miller wouldn’t oblige.
“Coach, I want to be here,” she said.
Strickland was floored with her strength to perform after a devastating loss. He said it brought the team together as they dedicated the season to her mom. It also inspired him to gain strength by watching her deal with tragedy.
“It has been a joy to be around her, and she has taught me so much in losses and things like that,” Strickland said. “This young lady has experienced so much, and to have her come to practice on that day was amazing. I think it tells a lot about who you are as a person.”
Miller’s talent has impressed many college programs. She decided to sign with Grambling State University to play on the softball team, but she admits it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I knew nothing about it until I had to take my ACT last year and three coaches were there at a softball game looking for me,” Miller said. “I never pictured Grambling and didn’t know where it was until a year and a half ago.”
It didn’t take long before Miller fell in love. She kept seeing Grambling coaches show up at her softball tournaments and high school games. They made a point to meet her family and get to know her off the field.
“It meant everything to us,” Rickey said. “We had about five or six junior college offers, at least four Division-I offers, and five D-3’s that wanted to pay everything.”
Grambling knew Miller wanted to go to a Division-I school, and they provided her with a scholarship to make it happen. They also promised the opportunity to turn the program around. This appealed to her as did a chance to make a difference on a bigger stage.
“I signed with them and it was a great feeling,” Miller said. “The program isn’t doing too well, but I know with me and a couple travel teammates, we can boost this program up a lot more. I feel like I would do better at Grambling as I can build myself up and contribute right away.”
Once she was signed, Miller went immediately to recruit Southern Stampede travel ball teammates Asli Strozier and Aliyah Murphy. The trio will suit up and be one of the best classes to enroll at Grambling State.
After the news broke of the signing, FCHS Athletic Director Kelly Taylor was extremely happy for Miller. Taylor recalled Miller saying she was going to sign during her freshman year. She was overjoyed once the day came.
“She was so full of her own confidence and beliefs that I believed it at that moment,” Taylor said.
In May, Miller took the next step in her journey by graduating towards the top of her class. As she walked across the stage, she was showered with a familiar sound. The crowd was roaring with the excitement of her accomplishments.
Miller took a minute to soak it all in. Her cap and gown were adorned with many awards. Just as she was there with her picture at signing day, graduation included specially-made shoes with her mom’s portrait on them. Once she grabbed her diploma, she had finally made it.
“The best part about senior year is walking across that stage,” Miller said. “I don’t think anything compared to that feeling. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
About 100 yards away, her family was also smiling. Like Miller’s favorite song, her family was all she’s got. With God on their side, they could accomplish anything.
“God has a plan and you can’t dwell on asking why,” Miller said. “You have to keep doing what you can to follow it.”