Sunday, April 5, 2015

Opponents remain family, teammates in ‘other’ Final Four

From today's Times and News-Star

That two childhood friends and teammates from North Louisiana would have ended up coaching against each other for the men’s championship in basketball’s Final Four wasn’t that far out of reach this month.

It wasn’t in THE Final Four: the NCAA’s “March Madness” concludes with its title game tomorrow night in Indianapolis. Although someday, maybe Kyle Blankenship and Matt Cross, each barely 30 years old, will end up either coaching against or with each other on the college sport’s biggest stage; athletics throws people into all sorts of unrehearsed circumstances.

This “other” Final Four, the NAIA’s Division I 32-team national championship tournament, ended nearly two weeks ago in Kansas City. Blankenship’s LSUS team – he led the Pilots to a Final Four appearance two years ago -- made the tournament in a rebuilding year and lost in the first round. Cross’s Talladega (Ala.) squad won a two-point game with a basket late in the quarterfinals, then lost by 10 in the semifinals to eventual national champion Dalton (Ga.) State. If Talladega hadn’t lost its starting center to an ankle injury in that quarterfinal game, who knows?

“You’ve got to get some breaks to win it all, and it didn’t happen; but it was still a great experience,” said Shreveport’s Robert Cross, Matt’s dad. “Even before we got to Kansas City we were hoping, since Matt and Kyle were in different brackets, they might meet up in the championship. On the other hand, that would have been a tough one for them. And for us.”

The “we” and the “us” are Matt’s parents, June and Robert Cross, and Kyle’s parents, Vicki and Rex Blankenship. The couples’ affection for each other grew as they raised their children in Shreveport, including boyhood friends Matt and Kyle.

“Naturally June and I love basketball and we’ve always supported Matt’s career, but we love Kyle too, and his parents,” Robert said.

Rex was pastor of Springs of Grace Baptist Church when the boys were in grade school. Matt and Kyle and their families went to church together and the boys played together and went to school together. Robert even coached them in church league basketball and coached Matt in pre-high school football.

Coaching runs in the Blankenship family too; Rex’s brother Bill, Kyle’s uncle, was most recently the head football coach at the University of Tulsa, where Kyle was a basketball team captain after an all-star high school career at C.E. Byrd.

“Those boys always loved sports,” Robert said. “We were always at a game, seems like. I think it’s safe to say that both families are pretty much sports-oriented.”

Matt played high school football at Northwood but “hoops was his true love,” his dad said. “He studied it, loved it…His dream was to be a coach. And he has been since he was became maybe the youngest head coach in the nation back when he was 23.”

The parents of the two coaches got to spend time together inside and outside the Kansas City Convention Center at the NAIA tournament; the coaches and boyhood friends got to spend time together on the court. After the Pilots’ tournament loss, “Matt had Kyle at practice helping his guys the day before the semifinals,” Robert said. “Matt put Kyle to work. He called him and Kyle said he’d help any way he could. That’s what friends are for.

“I don’t want to sound like too proud of a father, but they’re good boys,” Robert said. “Rex and I are both kind of old-school parents. We come from Christian families who believe in treating people right and trying to do the right thing. We’ve taught these boys that. They work hard, and they make sure their players do the same thing. Any coach at this level wants to get to Division I; they’ve done well and one day, as young as they are, they’ll make it. They keep winning and taking care of their business, they’ll get there. I know this for sure: they’ll be pulling for each other.”