Pioneers hunting for another national championship

Campbellsville-Harrodsburg head coach Austin Sparrow (front), Warner Bryan and assistant coach Zach Freeman celebrate as the Pioneers take control of their NCCAA matchup with Great Lakes Christian on Feb. 3, 2023.

Pioneers go from ‘hunted’ to ‘hunters’

By John Herndon,

HARRODSBURG – As Austin Sparrow greeted the visitor to the Conover Education Center Athletic Facility, he was carrying a pair of camouflage boots.

It was only about an hour before Sparrow’s Campbellsville-Harrodsburg team hosted Great Lakes Christian in a showdown between two of the top men’s basketball teams in the National Christian College Athletic Association. And you can be sure the boots were not your usual props for a pregame talk.

But then again, what has been happening at CU-Harrodsburg isn’t your usual college basketball story either.

“We have been talking about being the hunter instead of the hunted,” Sparrow said as he set the boots against a wall in his office.

CU-Harrodsburg’s Warner Bryan goes for two of his 21 points against Great Lakes Christian. (All photos by John Herndon unless otherwise noted.)

There’s little doubt the Pioneers are the hunted in only the sixth year of the program’s existence and its fourth under Sparrow’s leadership. They were crowned the NCCAA’s Division II national champions last March, winning their national tournament games by an average of better than 16 points an outing. 

“There are several teams this year that have made it their prime mission to knock us off, to beat the defending national champs,” Sparrow said. “When we go to play, everybody knows we are the defending national champs. It’s been an adjustment for our team. We have had a target on our backs the entire year. It has been an adjustment from being the hunters to the hunted.”

But the final 14:39 of what would be a 92-72 win over Great Lakes indicates the Pioneers are adjusting just fine.

A night after beating Grace Christian, another NCCAA power, CU-Harrodsburg found itself in a major gut-check moment. Great Lakes had built a 55-43 lead when Sparrow called timeout. “We were complacent. We were on our heels,” he said. “We are not very good when we are on our heels.”

The Pioneers quickly took the initiative, then outscored Great Lakes 49-17 the rest of the way.

Sparrow had wanted his team to force the action, be aggressive in transition and share the ball. Mission accomplished. “They didn’t care where the ball went as long as it went in the basket,” he smiled.

The win improved the Pioneers’ record to a deceptive 9-12, but was their sixth in the last seven games as CU-H jockeys for position in the upcoming NCCAA regional tournament. The Pioneers stood at only 3-11 after their first 14 games and had taken beatings from NCAA Division I teams Bellarmine, Morehead State and Lipscomb in exhibition contests that did not go against their record.

CU-Harrodsburg coach Austin Sparrow signals to his team during the win over Great Lakes Christian.

But Sparrow says that playing a rugged schedule loaded with teams competing at a level higher than the NCCAA’s Division II was part of the plan to toughen his team in its quest for another national title. The Pioneers’ weaknesses were exposed and they have been able to address any shortcomings since the calendar changed to 2023.

“That has impacted us greatly. Going back to the first semester and playing those top teams has helped a lot,” Sparrow said. “We have improved drastically since January.”

The win over Great Lakes was CU-H’s second over the Crusaders, who were ranked No. 3 nationally in the latest coaches’ poll, in 14 days. Great Lakes has spent time at No. 1 during the current season as well. Despite being the defending champs, Campbellsville-Harrodsburg was unranked in that poll released Jan. 24. The Pioneers stood at 3-2 against ranked teams.

To the average college basketball fan, the NCCAA is far off the radar. It’s the land of 6-7 centers and 6-3 wings, but the level of play is still high and the battles in the paint are as physical as anything seen on ESPN. In fact, Great Lakes’ leading scorer, Christian Matthews (19 points), had spent some time at Georgia Tech earlier in his college career.

But what Campbellsville-Harrodsburg has accomplished in just five years has turned heads in the world of small college basketball. Sparrow, who had just graduated from Lindsey Wilson College, joined the CU-H staff as an assistant coach in the summer of 2019, but not long before the season started, the school parted ways with the head coach, thrusting Sparrow into the head coaching spot on an interim basis.

Senior Chris Rawlins eyes the basket on a free throw during the win over Great Lakes Christian. He was getting more shots up after the game.

The Pioneers went 8-18 that season but the administration saw enough in the young coach that it removed the “interim” portion of his job title. Since then the Pioneers have been “Climbing The Ladder” – one of Sparrow’s favorite terms – of success in the NCCAA. 

Sparrow shares his Christian faith freely with his team and endeavors to make a difference in the lives of his players. And, he says, excellence on the court is part of that drive that has brought the college and Harrodsburg together.

“The administration and the community have gotten behind us and supported us over the last four years and have helped grow this thing into a championship level program,” he says. “It’s not just myself, but my coaching staff and it’s been a community and group effort.”

Sparrow, a Harrodsburg native, says that group effort includes his wife, Lauren. The two had been sweethearts since middle school before getting married last summer. “My wife is very supportive of me and does a great job handling the rigorous schedule of me being gone on road trips for two or three days,” he says with a smile. “We have two puppies at home and she is a great dog mom.”

Back on the court, the Pioneers appear ready to go after another big trophy. Sparrow says 12 of his 18 players returned from the national champs and know what it takes to end the season with a win. 

As Sparrow talked following the win over Great Lakes, Chris Rawlins, a senior from Louisville’s Central High School, had made his way back to the court to put up more shots. Sparrow could only smile about his player improving his marksmanship.

After all, a Pioneer is also a hunter.

Austin Sparrow participates in the Suits and Sneakers program to honor his late father, Casey Sparrow. (Facebook photo)

Sparrow honors his father 

During the last week of January, Sparrow participated in the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ “Suits and Sneakers” program for cancer awareness.

The program is personal to Sparrow as he lost his father, Casey Sparrow, to colon cancer nearly five years ago.

“I love that week to be able to honor him and his legacy and everything he stood for,” Austin Sparrow said. “He loved Bondurant Middle School (in Franklin County, where he served as principal). He loved all the athletes and the multiple places he coached in and represented. It’s very special to be able to honor him.”

Austin Sparrow was born while his father was the girls’ basketball coach at Anderson County High School and often sat at the end of the Lady Bearcats’ bench while a manager watched him. Casey Sparrow later led the girls’ basketball program at Covington Holmes, where he coached a Miss Basketball, Erica Hallman. 

Austin Sparrow says his father was also his best friend. “I didn’t have a brother growing up,” he says. “My dad was the one I stayed up late, watching basketball games with. I talked with him about what I wanted to do and he helped mold me into the young adult I am today.” 

CU-H coach Austin Sparrow goes over strategy with guard Nakyir Joyce during the Pioneer’s win over Great Lakes Christian.

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