MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The 2000-01 Columbia High School girls basketball team, under legendary head coach Johanna Wright, was one of the best in school history. The team finished with a stellar 28-4 record, winning county, sectional and state championships before finishing as runner-up in the state Tournament of Champions.
One of the top players on that team was Jessica Simmonds, who was a senior that year.
Simmonds is among several members of the 2022 CHS athletic hall of fame induction class.
In the Essex County Tournament final during the 2000-01 season, Simmonds led Columbia with 19 points in the 59-55 win over Shabazz. Simmonds also led the way in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 state tournament. She had a team-high 22 points with seven rebounds and five assists in the 64-33 win over Randolph in the quarterfinals. She then had a team-high 18 points in the 55-46 win over Bloomfield in the semifinals. Columbia went on to defeat Morristown, 41-40, in the sectional final.
After scoring 14 points in the 69-54 win over Paterson Kennedy, Simmonds scored 17 to lead Columbia to a 70-63 overtime win over Marlboro in the Group 4 state championship game.
In the Tournament of Champions, Columbia defeated Wildwood, 53-39, in the quarterfinals and beat Sparta, 64-48, in the semifinals. Columbia then traveled to the Meadowlands to face Sterling in the TOC championship. Columbia unfortunately lost, 45-40.
Simmonds, who earned all-conference, all-county, all–state and all-American honors at CHS, went on to play at Providence College and George Washington University at the Division I level. Simmonds combined to play in 116 games (110 starts), while totaling 1,279 points, 796 rebounds, 211 steals and 117 blocks. She made the all–Big East rookie team at Providence. She was a two-year captain at George Washington. The Colonials won an Atlantic 10 Conference regular season title and earned two NCAA tournament victories in her two years with GWU.
Simmonds played professionally in Greece, Latvia and Turkey from 2006 to 2009, and was a member of the Jamaican national team that competed in a pre-Olympic qualifier in the summer of 2007.
Simmonds has been a women’s basketball collegiate coach for several years. She coached at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Siena College, Chesapeake College and Hampton University. While she was at Chesapeake, the team won the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II, Region 20 championship and finished the season ranked sixth nationally across the junior college ranks. At FDU, she helped lead the Knights to the 2022 Women’s National Invitation Tournament and a school-record 15 wins in conference play. The Knights went 19-12 overall and 15-3 in the Northeast Conference, and won the NEC regular-season championship. Simmonds helped coach NEC Player of the Year Madison Stanley. During Simmonds’ time at FDU, the Knights won 47 games in three seasons, the most wins in a three-year span since 1989-1992.
In April, Simmonds joined the coaching staff at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Simmonds served three seasons as a head coach on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, coaching Team Takeover for one year and the New York Gauchos for two years. As an AAU coach, she was able to mentor a significant number of young women, helping them to play at the Division I level or simply attend college.
Simmonds is elated to be inducted in the CHS athletic hall of fame.
“I am honored and deeply humbled to be recognized and selected into this elite class of CHS hall of famers, especially after 21 years,” wrote Simmonds in an email to the News-Record. “I am extremely grateful for all of those who pushed for this opportunity. Huge thank you to Coach Wright and her late husband, Lonnie Wright. Also a huge thank you to my ‘Auntie Paula’ (Paula Bethea) and my mom (Reta Simmonds). They made this possible.”
Simmonds recalled some special moments during her time at CHS.
“Some of my fondest memories at CHS were competing with my teammates and forming genuine relationships with classmates and teammates!” she wrote. “We had the best squad in Essex County! We all shared a great love and passion for the game of basketball. Playing alongside them is one of my greatest memories that I wouldn’t change for the world.
“My funniest memory is when we had a home game and I almost made the basket into the other team’s hoop. However, I missed the layup and got my own rebound as everyone was screaming ‘Nooooo!’ It was that moment I realized I had the biggest brain fart. I was so open and still missed the layup. Thank God.
“Also, I loved when Coach Wright would rap the lyrics to any song, and she loved to dance and have a good time! She made basketball fun! She always lightened the mood and changed the energy. She always had an open-door policy, because she was located in the gym. We would flood her office. We wanted to be in her company because she was not only a great coach, but a great mentor and person.
“Playing for Coach Wright was an amazing opportunity,” continued Simmonds. “She’s a legend for a reason. She gave me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills and the ability to freely play within myself and my skill set. She knew how to get the best out of every player! She had a unique way of connecting with us that allowed us to be confident but also accountable. When she was tough on us, it was for a reason, and that was for us to be better. However, when we did something great, she was our biggest cheerleader.”
Wright is a CHS athletic hall of fame member, inducted in the 2009 class.
“Coach Wright has been a huge influence in my life. She was my first black female head coach, and a lot of my current coaching style has been formed after her. Coach Wright has always been genuine and uniquely her. She was always real and down-to-earth. I loved that about her, because she was able to influence/help anyone in need. When there is no fear in approaching people, you are able to genuinely create healthy relationships of trust and communication. She has always had a great way to connect with people. She knew how to speak and convey a message so all of us would listen and understand. She met everyone where they were. She brought joy, laughter, and great energy in every setting that she was in, till this day. However, when the time became serious, she commanded the room with her presence and intellect. Coach Wright was super competitive and was able to get every player’s best! She held every player accountable and demanded excellence in the classroom, on the court and in how we carried ourselves as young women. Being able to be coached by Coach Wright is one of my biggest blessings. She helped shape my life. It is bigger than basketball for her! And that resonates in me every day as I continue my coaching career.”
Wright, who coached at CHS from 1983 to 2012, said coaching Simmonds was a joy.
“There is so much that I can say about Jessica,” said Wright in an email to the News-Record. “When she came to CHS, I knew we had something special. She was a force to be reckoned with. Jess was an intense and fearless competitor. She was the type of player that demanded excellence from her teammates. She made other players better. She accomplished so much during her high school career and went on to play for Providence, where she was a Big East all–rookie team selection, and finished her career at George Washington, where Jess was a two-year captain and earned two Atlantic 10 honors, including a first team honor her senior year. … Her proudest accomplishment is her son, Nate Livesay, who is also owning the basketball courts!”
Simmonds said her mom and brothers were other role models.
“My mom and brothers are some of my biggest role models. My mom raised six kids on her own, and we all managed to do something productive with our lives. Raising kids is hard work. To do it alone, with six of them, is even harder. Watching my mom push through adversity and make a way out of no way, I only wish to be half the woman she is. She has a strength and power in her that is unmatched. However, she has one of the biggest hearts and is so caring and willing to help anyone in need. When I think I can’t go on, I instantly think of my mom and admire her sacrifices and journey from where she started to where she is now! I was the youngest of the six and the only girl. I gave my mom a run for her money! But what she was able to instill in me in spite of, I will be eternally grateful.
“My brothers pushed me to become something! I watched everything they all did and achieved. I wanted to have their success and do something great with my life. Watching them as I grew up was my biggest motivator to achieve success. To watch their grind and all the hard work they put in kept me motivated. I refused to be the odd one out or be compared. I wanted to create my own journey and path, while still understanding that it would not be easy. It takes hard work, but it will pay off if you put in the time and trust the process.”
Simmonds closed with advice to athletes and aspiring coaches.
“Be open to learning and ready to embrace the journey. You will learn a lot of do’s and don’ts along the way. Pick out what works for you and own it. You will face adversity. How you respond will be the most important. Doors will close, but that is OK. … Keep on knocking till someone opens, or you might have to kick it down. However, when your time comes, be ready, willing and able! Trust your process. It’s not how you start but how you finish.”