It’s Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich., and I have the privilege of spending some time with the undefeated George Fox University women’s basketball team. We are one of four teams who have hopes of a national championship in 2015. This year’s team represents the third time in six years that George Fox has appeared in the Final Four, with a championship and a second-place finish to their credit. I think most of us do not understand the significance of this achievement and may have come to take it for granted. There are more than 400 colleges and universities that play basketball in NCAA Division III. The final four teams represent the top 1 percent of all teams in the division. There is only one team that has made the Final Four three times in the past six years – George Fox. When you add to this the fact we play in one of the most competitive conferences in the nation, you begin to realize the excellent high level of play represented by our team. The Bruins are by all measures one of the very finest programs in the nation. To put this in our athletic vision terms, they have become “the team to beat.”
In Division III athletics we often note that our women (and men) all become professionals in something else. They are not going to college to become a professional basketball, tennis, baseball, softball or any other kind of player. They have come to George Fox to earn an education, to be formed in Christ, and to learn the lessons that only playing on a team can give you. On Friday we begin play and there will be only one winner. I do not know whether our women will. I believe they will win, but all the teams are excellent at the Final Four and all want to win. Only one can – we hope it is the Bruins!
Walking with our women through the day made me very proud regardless of the outcome of the games. Following early-afternoon practice the team was invited to practice and play with one of the Special Olympics programs in the Grand Rapids region. It has been a long time since I have had as much enjoyment watching a group of young people (see the group picture above!). Our players entered into the experience without reservation. They embraced the young Special Olympians as if they were their teammates, and they took their task with seriousness and joy. It was a true joy to watch Sam Naluai teach the young players to take a charge (click on the links below to watch videos!) At the end of the experience the Olympians played a short game against each other, with our players coaching and in full support. The character of our women was clearly evident.
I am writing this after having just returned from the evening banquet. It was a great evening with excellent food and speaker. The NCAA asks each team to select two students to represent the team and provide a short presentation that gives the community a sense of the group. George Fox chose Jami Morris and Tashawna Gordon. Jami noted that many did not expect this team to do much. They were picked fourth in the conference and few thought they might rise to the top. She talked about how the team came together and took it as a challenge. Perhaps more than any other team in recent history at George Fox, this group worked and played as a team. They met adversity at times and never surrendered at any point. They never quit on the court or in school. They look after each other; they care for each other. Tashawna, the team chaplain, did not speak long but her words were powerful: “At the start of the year, we prayed and gave our team and experience over to God. Lord make something beautiful out of us!” He has. Topping the evening off, Sam Naluai (pictured) won the Elite 89 Award, which honors the player at the championship with the highest grade point average! From a president’s perspective, the Lord has made something beautiful out of this team.