In a gymnasium filled with students for a pep rally Monday, the Columbus Christian girls basketball team soaked in a whole lot of love.
The Crusaders had returned with a Division 5 title from the National Association of Christian Athletes Tournament, which they won Friday in Dayton, Tenn.
“It’s really cool to be part of this,” Columbus Christian junior Hannah Carlock said after the gym had emptied. “We are part of Columbus Christian history.”
In just the third year of the program’s rebirth, the Crusaders won the school’s first national invitational title. The Crusaders finished 21-9 a year after going 12-14.
“In the past seasons, we worked extra hard just to win little games,” Carlock said.
Now the players want more.
“I want to get better, just my all-around game,” Carlock said. “My shooting is lacking. This summer I have goals for myself and my team.”
Junior Rachel Warren said the team’s success makes her want to work harder as well.
“I need to focus on the wing position and to develop that,” Warren said. “My ball handling is not as effective as it should be.
“I am so excited about conditioning now. We’re making history, and that is really cool to see. It makes me want to do more. It is much more competitive for me now. We are taking this to another level.
“I want to go all the way (to a state Christian Schools Tournament title).”
The program was folded after the 2005-06 season but returned three seasons ago with Ron Bridgewater taking over as head coach. The Crusaders went 8-9 that first season back.
Last summer, guards Macy Wingham and Kayleigh Reed both transferred to Columbus Christian and brought with them a more determined work ethic in terms of basketball.
Blending the two talented players into the lineup did cause a bit of anxiety for the returning players who kind of liked things the way they were.
“It took a little adjusting,” Crusaders center Tori Robinson said. “But they were great additions to our team. It has been fun to see all of us grow.”
In one single season, girls basketball at Columbus Christian appears to have gone from a hobby sport to something more serious.
At a tiny school that battles to fill out varsity rosters, could that become a problem down the road?
“Winning brings with it a little more pressure,” Bridgewater said. “And we certainly don’t want to lose our focus and become a 24-7 basketball team where you absolutely have to win.
“The great part for us is that, as a Christian school, we can let our light shine. We can play hard and let our attitudes reflect Christ.”
Bridgewater does love hearing that his players have set their basketball goals higher.
“We have players committed to being the best basketball players they can be,” he said. “That can be special. Now they already are talking about offseason conditioning and tournaments.”
Bridgewater was still smiling after the pep rally rattled the gym with deafening noise.
“That was fun to hear,” he said. “There is a buzz around school right now.
“That trip we took (to the NACA tourney) is, in general, more about team bonding. But to play our best five games of the year and to see our girls perform at that level was just huge.”