The No. 1 high school boys basketball team in the country plays in Kansas, at a school you’ve likely never heard of – unless you follow the best high school teams in the nation. This week the team enters the national tournament favored to win it all, after losing the championship a year ago.
What makes the program at Sunrise Christian Academy so successful?
It’s not just that Sunrise has produced over 100 NCAA Division I men’s basketball players in recent years, including current NBA star Buddy Hield.
And it’s not only that this year’s team is loaded with some of the nation’s best players.
Gatorade National Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American Grady Dick is a 6’8” small forward, and a five-star recruit heading to the University of Kansas in the fall. Another McDonald’s All-American, Mark Mitchell, is a four-star 6’9” power forward heading to Duke University.
They’re joined on Sunrise Academy by two more ESPN top 100 four-star prospects, Baylor signee Dillon Hunter and Florida State signee Cameron Corhen. The roster is filled out with other top-tier talent, too.
And coaching doesn’t entirely explain the success, either, though head coach Luke Barnwell just won his second consecutive Naismith Boys Coach of the Year award.
A mission and a blessing
When Barnwell considers the success of the program, he points to two sources: the mission and God’s blessing.
“I think the mission for our school has always been to reach the nations,” Barnwell said. “It’s a missions-minded school.”
And the mission includes basketball – something Barnwell traces all the way back to basketball’s inventor, James Naismith of Kansas lore.
“Dr. Naismith invented the game 150 years ago with the intention to disciple young men,” Barnwell explained. “I would stand here and tell you 150 years later, that mission hasn’t changed.”
Barnwell also attributes the success to God’s blessing: “I think [God has] blessed us for sure. When you have the crazy results that we have, it doesn’t scientifically or mathematically make sense. There has to be a blessing.”
That blessing is how Dr. Robert Lindsted, the school’s founder and superintendent, describes the growth of both the basketball program and the entire school.
“When I look at the school and see how God has blessed it and how it’s grown, it’s exceeded anything that I ever had in my mind,” he said.
In fact, when he planted the seeds of the school in 1983, Lindsted didn’t call it a school. But a year later, noticing the growth and momentum, Lindsted gave in. “You know what? This probably is a start of a school,” he remembers thinking. “And I think that was the indicator that this is God’s plan. It’s not our plan. It’s God’s plan.”
Christian education, on and off the court
Today, Christian schools such as Sunrise are in the midst of a great resurgence. Established Christian schools are expanding to accommodate enrollment growth, and new schools are popping up around the country to meet the demand of parents looking for alternatives to public schools that are failing to meet their children’s needs.
Lindsted says parents can be confident about what their kids are learning in a Christian school and know that the environment is a safe and welcoming place for their children.
“Everything is built on truth, and the absolute truth really is the Bible,” he said. “And I look at the acceptance of students that come to a Christian school. We don’t need all kids that are all straight A’s. We need kids that do their best and that say, ‘God has built me in this way’.”
And while the basketball program attracted them to Sunrise, Grady Dick and Dillon Hunter both speak of the positive impact their Christian education has on their lives.
“Just the fact that we get to learn about Christ and read the Bible and study different topics within the Bible every single day – we start early and then every Wednesday we have chapel also,” Dick said. “It’s like they’re feeding us every day.”
Hunter compared his experience at Sunrise to other schools he’s attended. “It’s built my faith a lot. My old school, we never really got into it,” he said. “So it’s actually helped build my faith. So being here actually made me become a better person.”
Teammates come back to give back
Sunrise is having a generational impact, too. Last year, one of the basketball program’s notable former players, Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., returned to coach the school’s postgraduate squad.
Coach Tum, as he’s known around the school, played for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, where he became a fan – and coach – favorite. Izzo once called him “the greatest teammate ever.”
Tum credits those team-first leadership qualities to his time at Sunrise, and he is already emphasizing these principles to his players.
“The vision that the Lord gave me was that [the players] would become better decision-makers and better teammates on and off the court,” he said. “You can’t be a good basketball player if you make bad decisions.
“And so if you’re not skilled in the area of decision making, you can fail in life.”
Other alumni also have returned to impact young people. Abby Hannaford, the director for the award-winning drama program, gives students three opportunities every year to be involved in the school’s first-rate productions, where she estimates about half of the school pitches in.
“Teamwork is definitely a crucial aspect because we have a short amount of time to put on a massive production,” she said. “So everybody has to work together to have it be successful and seamless.”
Returning to the national tournament
Overachieving. That’s the one word coach Barnwell chooses to describe Sunrise basketball.
“If you walk around our campus – we’re in the middle of the country and we’re battling against programs and schools that are in much more attractive places to live and have much better facilities and have much better resources than we have,” he said. “And we’ve somehow climbed the top of the mountain to be as good, if not better, than everybody.”
On Thursday, the Sunrise basketball team returns to the Geico Nationals, the premier invitation tournament for elite high school programs. Last year’s No. 2 seed, Sunrise lost in the championship game – and lost most of its players to graduation.
This year, it enters the tournament as the No. 1 seed.
“The turnaround to this year – I don’t think anybody in the country would’ve expected this,” Barnwell admitted.
Dick, who is one of only two returners from last year’s championship run, agrees. “We had a whole other team [last year]. … To get back to No. 1 is huge.”
“That’s why I love basketball,” Barnwell added. “You cannot do this on your own.”
And regardless of the outcome this weekend, as his players eye college careers and more, Barnwell wants them to remember what makes Sunrise special: “We’re a mission. …And the mission is always the same, no matter where you play.”