Madness can be special but is also a time of transition

Anderson County High School senior Alex Carpenter shoots a 3-pointer against Spencer County. Alex will play college basketball at Asbury University and says selecting a Christian college was a major factor in his choice for higher education.

Don’t forget spiritual growth when choosing college

By John Herndon,

I love March Madness.

No, let’s be a little more clear: I LOVE MARCH MADNESS!

And I love the Kentucky high school version of March Madness more than any other. High school madness actually starts in February but no one pays attention to that little detail. 

We’re talking packed houses, battling bands and both teams treating the basketball as if it is a priceless possession. Of course, with every game, except the district championship game, potentially being the last of a season, that rock is more precious than diamonds. 

There’s jubilation because you live to play again. The tears flow because it’s the end of seasons and careers. The very nature of high school sports — graduation, transfers, deciding to concentrate on other things, etc. — means that every time a season ends, it’s the last time that particular team will ever be together on the floor.

Anderson County’s Alex Carpenter put a cross and a quote from Exodus 4 on the hoop he broke when introduced for his Senior Night. He hit two free throws with 11 seconds to play to seal Anderson’s upset win over No. 8 Oldham County that night. (Photo courtesy Shannon Carpenter)

And the truth is a very select few will be playing college basketball on ESPN. A few more will play at a lower level. But after the final horn of that final game, most will get their game on in church leagues or at the local park.

And even those who are fortunate enough to get a chance to play college basketball will likely see their final time on the court coming four years later. Consider that in more than three decades of working for a newspaper, the number of kids I saw play go on to major college basketball was probably less than 20. Those who made it to the NBA could be counted on one hand.

That’s why one’s college selection is so important. There are so many important factors, but I hope young people and their families consider one’s spiritual growth in making a college choice. 

Over the last few years, I have grown to be a huge fan of small schools faithful to the Word of God and shaping young people’s lives. It’s not that we don’t believe young people can’t make it spiritually at a big university. We know too many who have done so and thrived with a strong Christian student group or local church ministry.

Recently I talked with a pair of small college coaches who see the mission as more than winning games, Lisa Conn, women’s basketball coach at Kentucky Christian University, and Will Shouse, who leads the men’s program at Asbury University. Both want to win every game, but run their programs in a way to develop God-honoring servants.

Kentucky Christian University women’s basketball coach Lisa Conn.

“Yes, I am passionate about winning,” Conn said in a story that was published on on Jan. 31. “I am passionate about coaching. I am passionate about getting the plays and doing all that stuff, but my real passion is bringing people to Christ and hopefully, they see that through everything I do and the decisions that I make and how I treat people.”

Shouse says his main focus is simply, “I want to help them be a Christian father, a Christian husband, Christian teammates and all of that.”

It’s important. While one’s athletic success, vocation and education are important, they are still temporary. One’s spiritual growth is eternal. Both of these coaches, as well as many others, recognize and emphasize that.

And I was fortunate to talk with Alex Carpenter, an Anderson County High School senior who has committed to play basketball at Asbury next year. Alex is one of those high school basketball players who can do several things well and, on a given night, can torch the opposition with his three-point shooting. He sank a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to seal Anderson’s upset of Oldham County on Feb. 14.

But Alex realized early that his size and skill set were not going to bring the big-time colleges to Lawrenceburg. He started looking for a Christian college that would give him the opportunity to play the game he loves while furthering his education. “It’s like a dream come true,” he said of the opportunity to play at Asbury. “(Picking a Christian school) was very important. I was brought up in church and I wanted to strengthen my relationship with Christ. I know that is going to happen there.”

I was also fortunate to talk — via email — with Abby West, a senior at Grant County High School who will suit up for Kentucky Christian next year. “Faith has always been a big part of my life and I’ve made it a priority,” she says, “so going to a Christian college will help me stay focused and grow in my faith.”

Grant County senior Abby West. (Photo courtesy Shawn West)

West, who is considered one of the top girls’ basketball players in the Eighth Region, had multiple college offers and plans to major in physical education at KCU. She believes she found a great fit at her father’s alma mater. “I picked KCU because I felt most at home there and I loved the small Christian community. All of them people seem sweet and I feel that I can grow my game as well.”

Shouse, who also served as head men’s coach at Kentucky Christian before returning to his alma mater, agrees that the atmosphere at a Christian college is special. “I was at KCU for two years and it gives you a base of support of people around you. You have people heading in the same direction. It gives you people that are supportive and there is also accountability in that. You get the support you need, not only in school and athletically, but in your walk.”

Carpenter says he had followed Asbury some but became interested in the school last summer when he attended basketball camp there. And he’s happy to have the opportunity to suit up for Shouse.

“That was super important,” he says. “He’s there to bring his kids closer to Christ. There’s not much more you can ask than that.”

Private education can be suprisingly affordable

For years, the most common criticism of private education was cost. It was expensive. Very expensive.

Several times in my career as a sports editor I talked with young athletes and their families about opportunities to compete at a small college. It was not unusual to hear something along the line of “He’d like to go play there, but even with their scholarship, they are still more expensive than going to a state university.”

Today, private education is still expensive. It’s still very expensive.

And so is public education. The key in getting substantial financial aid to pay for the college education lies in taking care of the academic side. “I do a lot of AAU in the off-season and that is one of the top questions asked of me, especially from the smaller schools,” Shawn West, girls’ basketball coach at Grant County High School, said in an email. “They don’t have the funds available like larger universities, so yes, I express to all of our players that they are STUDENT/athletes and that grades are huge when it comes to covering bills. I learned this first hand going through the process with my son, who is playing golf at Midway (University). The fact that he was a good student and performed well in class helped him at all the schools from the financial side of things.”

It hit me personally when my own daughter was looking for a college, an aggressive scholarship program meant that a private education would be easier on the pocketbook than a state university. It was true with her offers from several colleges because she had taken care of business in the classroom during high school.

Asbury coach Will Shouse talks with Desmond Duke during the Eagles’ game with IU-Southeast on Feb. 8.

Obviously, that experience is not universal and there are many people for whom a public education is the only way to go financially. But we know we were not alone in our findings. Alex Carpenter (who has a grade point average in excess of 4.0) found the same.

“Once mom and I started looking at things and what (scholarships) we could get, it was true,” he said of his education at Asbury being less expensive than a state university. “It did surprise me.”

While every situation is different and cost can’t be the sole determining factor in choosing a college path, we wonder if many people limit their opportunities by excluding private colleges due to assumptions that may no longer be true. 

— John Herndon

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