Make no mistake about it: The Nebo Crossing Christian Academy Bulldogs basketball team wanted to win the Carolina State Athletic Association state championship after coming up one game short a year ago.
But even if they hadn’t won, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Their faith, after all, helps them keep things like basketball in the proper perspective.
“Last year, our main goal was to get a state championship, and we came up short,” said senior forward Jalen Winchenbach. “We were all just devastated. But this year, our main focus was just to glorify God whatever we did.”
What they did was win the Carolina State Athletic Association state championship with a 57-55 victory over Oak Level (Stokesdale) Feb. 16. It was the first state championship of any kind for the 6-year-old school. The hard-fought win capped a 24-4 season for the Bulldogs, but head coach James Manthe said it was never their ultimate goal.
“It was a unique year, because last year, we wanted to win so badly,” said Manthe. “We came into this year with the expectation that if we worked hard, we could get back there. We felt like God was leading us to not care about wins and losses, but to just to focus on giving Him the glory.
“As a coach, that’s scary. I sat my players down and said, look, we’re not going to be about our record. We’re not going to be about the scoreboard. We’re going to do whatever we can do to make sure God gets worship and gets praise and gets glory. If we lose every game and He gets the worship, that’s fine.”
There was a lot more winning than losing for Nebo Crossing. Aside from a loss to University Christian (Hickory), only three frustrating non-conference defeats at the hands of Woodland Baptist (Winston-Salem) stood between the Bulldogs and perfection.
In the championship game, Nebo Crossing faced an Oak Level team it had already between twice, by a 64-40 score in the first meeting and then by a much closer 59-53 count in the second.
Oak Level came out hot and scored 15 of the title game’s first 19 points. But the Bulldogs quickly righted the ship, thanks in large part to the shooting of junior guard Adam Condrey and a defense that gave up only three second-period points.
“They hit every shot,” said Winchenbach of Oak Level’s early run. “But we slowly were chipping away at it, and at the half we were up eight.”
From there, it was a matter of holding on down the stretch via some clutch free throws from sophomore point guard Daniel Garner.
“The last three-and-a-half minutes took forever,” said Manthe of the excruciating final moments.
Sophomore guard Alec Condrey, who, along with Adam Condrey and Winchenbach, made the CSAA All-State team, said he had a feeling the third meeting with Oak Level would be a dogfight.
“It was the third time we had played them, and every game kept getting closer and closer,” said Condrey. “The first time we played them, we beat them by 20, and in the championship, we beat them by two.”
Manthe said he didn’t anticipate a second straight trip to the championship game when the season started, but knew his club had the potential to get there.
“We knew we had some talented young guys, but they weren’t as experienced,” said the coach, whose club has a 20-minute drive to its gymnasium for practices and games. “We knew we were going to be able to defend. That’s kind of been our thing; we’re strong defensively. We just weren’t sure at some points in the season where the points were going to come from.”
But they came, from players like Alec Condrey, who had a couple of 30-point outings during the regular season, and from Adam Condrey, who battled injuries but came up big in the championship game.
Adam said the team got closer and chemistry improved as the season progressed.
“As we continued to play throughout the season, we saw that it was going to take hard work,” he said. “It was going to take us playing as a team, playing as one unit. Through hard games and losing to the same team three times, we found that unity.”
And as always, the Bulldogs were guided by the pervasive sense of playing for a higher purpose.
“That made it a lot more fun,” said Alec Condrey. “Even when the other team started winning, we still gave it our best because it wasn’t for us; it was for Him.”
Adam Condrey added the attitude change produced more than wins on the court.
“I’d get angry easily,” he said. “I remember last year, because Coach brings it up all the time, one of the first games we were playing, I got mad, and I was like, ‘Coach, you’ve got to take me out.’ But it’s come to the point now where I know I’m not playing for myself. I’m playing for God and so that other people can see who I am as a person and not just a player.”
Manthe recalls a moment that strengthened the team’s resolve to follow the path it had set for itself.
“We were playing Tabernacle and it was a real chippy game,” said the coach. “I called timeout and I was drawing up this press, and I was like, ‘we’re going to stomp them into the ground,’ and I take a knee and Adam’s like, ‘Coach, we need to pray.’ So we prayed during the timeout. The same kid who was ready to strangle someone last year was leading the team in prayer.”
For Manthe and his players, moments like that are the ones that make the journey worthwhile.
“Not focusing on wins and losses, but focusing on Christ and focusing on our responsibilities on the floor, I was blown away with the things God did this year on our team,” said Manthe. “I’m blessed to coach these kids.”