Choosing God over college basketball: Why one top player quit her team

When Leah Church got into the University of North Carolina (UNC), she cried. Her mom cried. Her sister cried.

It was her dream school, and she hadn’t even applied.

Church had always loved UNC –…

When Leah Church got into the University of North Carolina (UNC), she cried. Her mom cried. Her sister cried.

It was her dream school, and she hadn’t even applied.

Church had always loved UNC – she had Carolina clothes, birthday parties, and bedroom decor. Her favorite thing about the school was the women’s basketball team. She remembers running laps around the house as a 7-year-old, trying to get in shape to play basketball there.

Since Church was homeschooled, her mom found creative ways for her to play ball – on homeschool teams, travel teams, or private school teams.

A 7-year-old Leah Church with Coach Hatchell at a UNC basketball camp / Courtesy of Leah Church

She was good, averaging 25 points a game with a 47 percent field goal percentage. (Shooting guards in the NBA last year averaged 44 percent.) But “as I got older, I saw it would be hard to attain a scholarship to play D1,” she said. (Division I schools, like UNC, play the highest level of college sports.)

So she gave up on UNC and signed on at North Carolina State. “I was kind of devastated, but I was like, Well, this has to be the Lord’s plan because it’s what he put before me.”

And then, the summer before college, she got a call from UNC. The coaches knew her from basketball camp, and she was offered a full scholarship to play basketball. “It was a dream come true,” Church said. “It was amazing.”

For two years, it was amazing. She worked hard, acing her classes and improving her game. Her faith set her apart, but she was shielded from some of the secular pressures of her team and university by her Christian coaches, including famed head coach Sylvia Hatchell—until the end of her sophomore year, when Hatchell resigned. The environment shifted under a new head coach. At the end of her junior year, Church walked away from the team.

TGC asked Church how she knew it was time to quit, how she handled the disappointment, and how God has provided for her since then. 

You love UNC women’s basketball, you’re pretty tough, and you aren’t a quitter. Take us into your experience – what made this experience so difficult that you needed to walk away?

It was so hard.

When you get to play in Carmichael Arena – where the UNC women’s team plays – you’re on the court where Michael Jordan played when he was at UNC. When I got to step onto the court, it was everything I’d ever dreamed of.

Celebrating after UNC beat #1 ranked Notre Dame in Leah’s sophomore year / Courtesy of Leah Church

The first month or two with the new coaching staff were fine, but as time went on things became more difficult. I started seeing that there were expectations for me to participate in the party lifestyle and condone things that didn’t line up with my biblical beliefs. I choose not to drink, and I’m choosing to save myself for marriage. I said no to a lot of things, which made team bonding challenging.

There was only one other Christian girl on the team, and she quit when the new coaching staff came on.

It was super lonely. I felt like sometimes I was singled out for my beliefs, which led to degradation. Midway through junior year, I started thinking, I’m going to have to get out of this. I am miserable. It absolutely killed me when basketball started no longer being fun or enjoyable – it was crushing.

My mom would tell me, “Light and darkness don’t mix. It’s not you they dislike, but Christ in you.” I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier.

When the coach came out with the list of causes the team would be supporting, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to compromise and go against biblical principles. I decided, in light of eternity, that basketball wasn’t worth it.

You worked your whole life for this goal, only to have it sour partway through. How did you handle that disappointment?

I grew up in a Christian home. My dad is a full-time missionary evangelist – he preaches at revivals and does mission trips. My mom chose to homeschool my sister and me all the way through high school to lay the biblical foundation that was needed.

I tried to be a witness at UNC where I could. I tried to live my life honoring God. I know there is always a purpose wherever we are placed. I don’t know why it had to happen that Coach Haskell left two years into my career when she’d been there for 33 years. I know it’s not good to question God, but I questioned that.

Leah dribbles in a game against Duke University her sophomore year / Courtesy of Leah Church

I talked to my mom and dad, and we prayed and looked at every option. Ultimately, we all felt peace that it was God’s time for me to leave.

I kept coming back to James 1:12 (“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial”) and Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you”). You may think in the moment, Why am I giving up my senior season? But if you really trust his sovereignty and plans, you have to go to the end of the verse, where it says his plans are to give you hope and a future.

Life’s not supposed to be easy for Christians. For me, it helped to think about eternity. And through this, I’ve had the opportunity to share my faith at churches and with teams. I’ve been able to use this to encourage others to stand firm because, in the end, that’s what matters.

What happened next? How did you handle your senior year without basketball?

I did watch my team play on TV. It was hard because I’m a competitive person, and I didn’t have my own outlet to play sports. But I didn’t envy all they were having to go through for COVID, with no fans and living in a bubble. If I’d been with them, I wouldn’t have been able to see my family.

Since our classes were all online, I was able to live at home and take a heavier load. I graduated early, in December. Now I’m an assistant coach for our local high school basketball team, and I do one-on-one basketball training as time allows. I also help my dad with FaithFest, which is a Christian music festival.

You just walk in the light he gives you. It’s hard because I’m a planner, and the Lord doesn’t give us the whole plan. I think that’s where faith comes in. In my story God is going to be faithful, just like he was in Isaac’s or Abraham’s or Ruth’s story. His heart is true. He’s going to be faithful.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be struggling in a secular environment?

The biggest thing is to be grounded in your faith before you go. It helps to purpose in your heart that you’ll be willing to stand when the going gets tough, because pressures are going to come.

Before you go in, decide what matters, which is the Word and your witness.

This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.