WARSAW — Let the games begin.
Grace College and the National Christian College Athletic Association held their annual pre-tournament banquet at Warsaw Community Church Tuesday night, and with the completion of the event, the NCCAA Basketball Championships were set to begin Wednesday.
Tuesday’s banquet marked the 11th year that Grace has hosted the national tournament — the college became the site of the women’s tournament in 2009 and began hosting both the men’s and women’s tilts in 2012 — and NCCAA Executive Director Dan Wood thanked Grace for its role in the tourney during that span at Tuesday’s ceremonies.
“This is 11 years in one way or another of hosting the national championships here at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center,” said Wood. “The effort and the task that it is to do that — eight of those years as I understand are the men’s and women’s championships together — I think we all collectively, the thousands of hours that they’ve put that are now going to show up this year for you rolling out the red carpet, student-athletes, coaches, guests, we need to thank Grace College and all the effort that they’ve put into what’s going to happen the next few days.”
As part of the annual banquet, the winners of the Kathy Freese and Pete Maravich Awards — the NCCAA’s highest scholar-athlete honors for women and men, respectively — were named, with Nebraska Christian College senior Kayla Bloodworth selected for the Freese award, and Lincoln Christian University senior Zach Thompson presented with the Maravich award.
Bloodworth is a two-time NCCAA scholar-athlete with a 3.86 GPA and owns 15.1 points per game and a total of 198 blocked shots so far during her senior season. The senior captain interns at a local children’s church and is studying to become a youth minister.
“She is one of the first people to encourage her teammates when they are down,” said head coach Jenna Bloodworth in a prepared statement. “She is willing to go the extra mile to serve her team even when she gets no credit. She is a great representation of our college, the NCCAA and what it means to be a Christian student-athlete.”
Thompson has scored over 21.000 points in his career, with averages of 19.8 and 6.6 rebounds per game. Like Bloodworth, he serves in youth ministry as well as in student government positions and holds a 3.9 GPA.
“This athlete’s skill set is impressive, and his leadership is vital,” state head coach Donny Aeilts. “His teammates, students and peers look up to him, and the school’s faculty and staff think highly of him. He’s had a great career, and we’re excited to see how his leadership ability translates to Kingdom work after graduation.”
Unlike in years past, Tuesday’s pre-tourney banquet didn’t feature a celebrity guest speaker. Instead a panel of six players from the tourney field were invited onstage, where they answered questions from Kensington Digital Media Group’s Roger Grossman. Bloodworth and Thompson both took part in the panel alongside Mid American Christian’s Shelby Thrailkill, Cedarville University’s Grant Zawadzki, Brewton-Parker College’s Jada Ivy, and Grace men’s own Martin Schiele, a crowd favorite.
“One thing that resonated over the last couple of years is we got to this part of the banquet, which is always great with the banquet, but (players) said ‘You know what? We’d love to have the opportunity to hear some of our peers and some of the things that they’ve gone through, how they’ve grown in their faith, how they’ve battled adversity, what did the Lord teach them through the platform of basketball and what did they do through the good and the bad of their experience,’” explained Grace College Director of Athletics Chad Briscoe. “So we took note.”
Grace men’s coach Jim Kessler was singled out for his more-than four decades at the helm of the Lancers several times and by multiple speakers at the banquet. Kessler announced in February that he will give up the reigns of the program after 42 years, turning them over to current Grace men’s assistant Scott Moore, who has worked under Kessler the past seven years.
“For 42 years, you’ve set a banner up there for the cause of Christ. I don’t know how many games you’ve won, but the young men who are today better husbands, better fathers, better employees, maybe better business owners, but Kingdown followers. That’ll be a long line, sir, when that day comes that they get to tell you thanks up there,” said Wood. “We need to thank a guy who has epitomized what NCCAA is all about for 42 years of coaching.”
In a fitting last note to the banquet, Kessler delivered the event’s closing remarks and prayer.
“The NCCAA has been a consistent source of friendship and camaraderie because we have such a great deal in common as coaches,” said Kessler. “I know we’ve battled on the court, but there’s been some really neat men in the NCCAA and it’s been a real encouragement and a challenge to make so many friends with some of the coaches. So take advantage of some of those opportunities. I want to thank the Lord for the NCCAA and the leadership it provides in my life.”
The 16-team tournament begins Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. with a men’s match-up between Hannibal-LaGrange and Columbia International at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center. Robert Wesleyan and Hiwasee will tip off the women’s side at noon, with the men’s championship slated for 2 p.m. Saturday, and the women’s title game to follow.