By Luis Perez Lurchundi
The Goshen College men’s basketball team officially begins practice on Sunday, after spending several weeks focusing on physical conditioning.
Neal Young, who became the men’s coach last April, said players were tested for the mile run, court sprints and weightlifting when they came back from the summer; they’ll be tested again in advance of the first practice (he hopes the team averages under 6 minutes for the mile).
“I think that basketball is a quickness game and a leverage game,” Young said. “The team is trying to be quicker and more versatile than our opponents, so it will be an advantage for us.”
Young, 28, who served as an assistant coach at Goshen College from 2008 to 2011, knows the level of competiton his team of 12 will face. He inherited the program from Gary Chupp, whose team finished 8-21 overall and 1-17 in Crossroads League play last season.
But Young is also determined, in the most personal of ways. Only two months after he was appointed head coach and two days after he and his wife, Maggie, moved to Goshen, on June 2, Young was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. Doctors found a tumor the size of a baseball in his chest.
After the first round of treatment, the tumor was completely gone, he said. “Doctors are saying good things,” he said. “I’m optimistic that this will be my only bout with cancer.”
But even so, once treatment begins, it must continue for the duration – in Young’s case, two years. About once a week, he travels to Chicago for chemotherapy, though treatments will become more spread out with time. After treatment on Tuesday this week, Young took that day off. “The main symtom is that I’m tired, just tired,” he said. “My body is sore from a lot of poking and prodding.”
By Wednesday, he was back on campus, mananging the team.
Young says cancer is allowing him to have a different vision on the basketball court: “Cancer is changing my perception on basketball. I think it is giving me a better perspective about what is truly important. I like basketball, but at the end of the day what is much more important for me it is to build men, men of character, who can go out into their future professions, into their future communities with their families, and also to build leaders. It also gives me a bigger sense of appreciation for the good days.”
“I have learned how important faith in God is, and about the good nature of people,” he said. “People who I didn’t even know sent me cards wishing me a soon recovery.”
An important verse, he said, is Isaiah 41:10, which begins, “So do not fear, for I am with you.”
“Prayer in general has helped a lot,” he said. “I used to pray before meals and before bed. But I wouldn’t say I had a prayer life, that I was consistently in communication with God. That’s changed.”
Young said that if the players ask about the cancer, he’s ready to talk about it, but he doesn’t want to use his experience to manipulate: “I did this, so you guys should do that.”
The cancer experience hasn’t changed his approach to coaching in terms of “X’s and O’s” on the court, he said. But there is a difference. “I might have felt that certain things were a bigger deal than I would now,” he said.”If a guy was late to a meeting, I might have blown up in the moment. Now I want to pull him aside and talk to him about the importance of being on time, of respect, of good habits.”
So during the first weeks of the basketball season, he will not be present in all the varsity practices, but he said he has full confidence in his assistant coaches, Brandon Lokken and Mike Hunter.
For the past couple of weeks, Young said, he has been exercising again: walking 15 minutes, working out on the elliptical machine for another 15 minutes, a quick circuit of light lifting.
“For two months I couldn’t lift at all,” he said. “I hated the way that felt.”
Billy Geschke, an incoming player who was an all-state guard in Ohio, said, “Coach Young is always ready for practice, and he is the first one to come to the practices and the last one to leave them.”
Young knows the strengths and the weaknesses of the team. “As far as strengths we have five seniors,” he said. “We are more athletic than our opponents. And as far as weaknesses, we have only 12 players on the roster, so we have to be sure that they stay healthy because if two of the players go down, that could be a problem.”
Young also considered that they need their best players to be in shape. “We have one of the best players in the league, Jerron Jamerson,” he said. “We also have one of the smartest guys in the league, in Matthew Glick; and one of the most athletic and dynamic point guards in the league, Stefon Luckey. We are going to ask a lot of them and they are going to give a lot for us.”
Tim Demant, the athletic director at Goshen College, said that Young brings “an outstanding professional background” to the position.
As an undergraduate, Young played for the Anderson University, where he received his degree in secondary education. He also received a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Lewis University.
Young is the 14th head coach of the Goshen College basketball program.
His first coaching opportunity was in Anderson Highland High School, where he developed his knowledge of the sport as the freshmen coach and as the assistant coach of the varsity team. He then went to Goshen College to become the assistant coach in 2008. That year, the team set a Goshen College record for most conference wins, nine, during a season.
After three seasons at Goshen, he signed as an assistant for two years with Lewis University, an NCAA Division II university in Illinois. There, he helped to coach a team that tallied 36 victories. The school also reached the NCAA Division II national tournament during Young’s time there.
Young earned the players’ confidence early in his return to Goshen. As a freshman guard, Dalton Shetler, said, “He knows everything you can imagine about basketball, technique, strategies.”
One of the themes for the season is appreciation. To remind his players of the chance they’ve been given, Young keeps a sign on his door listing the number of players who “contacted us because they want to be a part of this program.” On Wednesday, he erased 93 and wrote in 97.