Three former Crossroads players aim for national championship
NAIA Div. I Men's Basketball National Championship
• Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
• No. 6 Southwestern Assemblies of God vs. Science & Arts of Oklahoma, Wednesday, 9 a.m.
James Ford, Reid Brunner and Clayton O'Neill all have one thing in common.
None of them has a championship basketball trophy to boast about, but they have an opportunity to change that.
Ford, Brunner and O'Neill, who all played high school basketball in the Crossroads, will try and lead Southwestern Assemblies of God University to a national championship at the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
"I've only dreamt about playing for a national championship," Ford, who played at Faith Academy, said. "I never thought I'd have the opportunity, but here we are."
The sixth-ranked Lions (29-4) face the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma (17-9) in the first game of the national tournament Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Municipal Auditorium.
"I'm really excited," former Hallettsville Brahma Clayton O'Neill said. "It's been a long, hard journey, and it's nice to see it pay off. We're all real excited to be here."
For Ford, being five victories away from a national championship is all the more meaningful as his senior season comes to a close.
"I've been waiting on this chance my whole collegiate career," Ford said. "It's starting to settle in as we're driving to Kansas City right now that this is actually here. It's actually happening."
The former Cougar is averaging 16.5 points per game in 32 games played with three starts.
"He's kind of like our (Manu) Ginobili-type of offensive player," Lions head coach Donnie Bostwick said. "He has a lot of firepower. By far, he's one of our best percentage shooters. If we need a big shot, he's automatic."
For O'Neill and Brunner, this is an opportunity to finish a championship run after coming close in high school. The former teammates made plenty of memories in high school but are hoping to add one more.
"We had fun in high school, and we continue to do so," O'Neill said. "It's been a blessing having Reid (Brunner) on the team. We have great chemistry."
"Me and Clayton (O'Neill) and have been playing together since high school, and this is definitely one of those stories you hear about," Brunner said. "It's a dream come true."
Brunner also said it's been fun playing with Ford, who made a name for himself on the basketball court just 45 miles to the south.
"I remember reading about him in the paper back in high school," Brunner said. "A year ago, though, I never thought I'd be playing with him."
Brunner, a redshirt freshman, and O'Neill, a sophomore, have only seen limited time on the court. However, what they do can't be found on a stat sheet.
"Clayton (O'Neill) has more toughness and character than I've seen in a while," Bostwick said. "When we need a little energy, we can go to him. He's just a great team player."
"One of my jobs is to learn an opponent's different plays, different strategies and play like that against our starters," Brunner explained. "In the game, I'm able to call out the other team's plays and what sets they're going to run before they even make them."
That eye for strategy will help Brunner to advance into his dream job of being a basketball coach. However, his current coach says he's already doing that.
"He's still coaching on the court," Bostwick said. "He was my student assistant a year ago, and this past Christmas, we gave him a uniform. He's a great player and great shooter."
The Southwestern Assemblies of God team has only been to the NAIA National Tournament one other time in its 15 years of eligibility. That was in 2006.
None of the current Lions were on that team seven years ago, but the confidence level is still high, despite the pressure some teams may feel.
"There's no pressure," Ford said. "We're not too high, not too low. We know what we have to do to win, and that's what we'll do."