Alex Thompson directs the Cougars from courtside during a game earlier this season. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
The number nine doesn't look the same to Alex Thompson as it did three years ago.
When Thompson began working with the boys basketball team at Starkville Christian School, nine represented the losses for his junior varsity Cougars the first year.
Things have changed since that time.
The SCS boys have matured and grown since that time and now Thompson, as the boys varsity coach, has watched the squad get off to a 9-1 start this season.
Entering the sixth year of basketball, the progress is evident on the court for the Cougars.
Starkville Christian ran off nine-consecutive victories to begin the season before a tough 51-50 loss to Hebron Christian last Friday night.
"It's good to see because now those guys I coached in junior varsity the first year are now are the starters on varsity and we've had a few additions to go along with the guys who were already there," Thompson said. "To see the progress we've made from going 0-9 in junior varsity and only winning a couple of games in varsity that year and see how much each kid has progressed, come together and become a solid team has been a lot of fun to watch and a privilege to be a part of."
The entire sports program at SCS has come a long way in a little over five years.
The boys basketball team's improvement is evident by the record, but the girls squad has also gotten better.
In the beginning, Scott Cappleman and Kate Little volunteered their services as coaches to provide a little bit of instruction to the Cougars basketball teams.
"That was the first of anything in terms of organized practices, organized coaching or anything of that type," SCS headmaster Randy Witbeck said. "Scott was instrumental in getting that going. You've got Scott on that end and Kate on the girls side. We had played and practiced a little bit, but nothing really organized until Scott and Kate came along.
"We never saw ourselves being in a competing mode. We played because we wanted to play. That's what we're still looking at. (We're) making sure it's fun and school comes first."
Even when the Cougars lost their first game of the season, Witbeck was proud of the amount of class the team showed in handling the situation.
"The attitude they showed coming off the court made everyone realize the mission behind the school and what the coaches believe," Witbeck said. "We have really been blessed with some young Christian coaches and I'm tickled to death. Most of them come in and ask what can I do to help. We haven't gone out to search out anybody."
Mark Horstemeyer has worked with SCS basketball program since the beginning and said it's interesting to look at how far hoops has come at the school.
"Randy Witbeck basically started this school from nothing and they started basketball from nothing," Horstemeyer said. "Scott Cappleman donated his time the first three years and I helped him. As students increased in the school, that helped grow the numbers for a basketball team. It's evident that a good thing is happening and a growth that's positive and healthy, not only for the school, but for the community."
Cappleman has been able to follow the team's efforts through what he has read and is excited about what he's hearing.
"Some of the guys who were on the 6th, 7th and 8th grade team when I was coaching are now juniors and seniors, like Caleb Jordan, Austin Foxx and Jesse Little," Cappleman said. "The school enrollment has increased and that has brought in some new athletes joining in with those guys that were there when I was coaching. I knew those young guys in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade had a raw talent. I was there three years and by the junior high year, you could see the development taking place and could see they had a good future ahead of them. Now that they've had some additional pieces come alongside of them, I think they are doing fantastic and I couldn't be prouder of them.
"What I tried to do was provide them a love for basketball and use the talent that God had given them. I was thankful for Mr. Witbeck and Mrs. (Lynn) Witbeck for letting me be a part of that experience and helping get the basketball program off the ground. I'm forever grateful for that opportunity."
After Cappleman finished his tenure with the Cougars, Horstemeyer picked up sources from around town and Mississippi State University that helped with the coaching aspect.
Horstemeyer said the opportunity to bring in MSU graduate assistants has been "a model" for what the Cougars are trying to develop.
One of the students that makes Horstemeyer proud is Thompson.
"He went from just kind of watching, taking over junior varsity and now this year leading the varsity," Horstemeyer said. "We've had other young guys in Austin McCann and Rex Bingham. It's been about them growing and giving them opportunities. It seems to be working."
Horstemeyer said the goal for the boys this season was to have a winning season and "didn't anticipate being 9-1 at this point."
Thompson said it has been rewarding to see the Cougars achieve this much success this season.
"This is the first time these guys have played together," Thompson said. "To see the guys play like they have, really come together and be there for each other has been really great.
"Teams used to look at their schedule and count Starkville Christian as a win, but now when we walk into a gym, people can't do that anymore. It's great to gain other people's respect along the way."
Horstemeyer said the school opening up the sports program to home schoolers has also helped strengthen the teams.
Even though the SCS girls have not had as much success as the boys, coach Luke Buckner has watched the entire team improve.
Buckner said the focus has not just been on winning, but also character issues.
"It's been a good time of developing character and even my character has been developed," Buckner said. "It's been good and I'm very appreciative of it."
He appreciates the support from Witbeck and the assistance from Horstemeyer.
"Learning from them and learning from others has been really good," Buckner said.
Thompson echoes the statement by Buckner about the opportunity the Cougar leadership gave him as a young coach.
"As a junior in college and with this being my first year as varsity head coach, there are a lot of things I didn't think about or expect to happen," Thompson said. "To have them to always fall back on, talk to them and have their advice and guidance, I don't know what I'd do without them."
Horstemeyer said the sports programs wouldn't be where it is today if it were not for the leadership of Randy and Lynn Witbeck.
"As a person that has an important role at (Mississippi State) and live in this community, I volunteered my time because I value what Randy and Lynn Witbeck are doing over there at Starkville Christian and the influence and perspective they bring," Horstemeyer said. "I have the highest regard for them. They are a jewel for the community."
View more articles in: