Sports are supposed to be part of the educational experience, and there’s no question a Grade-A science project is about to unfold on the floor at Mooseheart this winter.
Take three towering South Sudanese transfer students, maddeningly rangy and athletic but just as basketball-raw, and plop them on a Class 1A basketball roster.
Then, stand back, observe, and ... well, who knows? Excitingly, we’re about to find out.
Mooseheart, the tiniest school in the area and carrying the lowest of basketball profiles, is ready to roll out a front line that, from a size standpoint, would be the envy of many Division-I college teams, let alone 3A and 4A high school teams.
For a program without so much as a regional title to its name, the possibilities this season are enthralling – how in the world are 1A teams going to deal with 7-foot-1 Akim Nyang, 6-10 Makur Puou and 6-7 Mangisto Deng, who bring a point guard’s skill set.
Coach Ron Ahrens, also Mooseheart’s director of residential living, isn’t taking the bait, at least when it comes to projecting an unprecedented pile of victories.
“I’m more about how am I preparing these young men for the rest of their lives, and that’s always been the mindset here at Mooseheart, and it’s been a mindset of mine since I’ve been here,” Ahrens said. “How am I preparing kids for the rest of their lives? I don’t measure it on wins and losses, ever, in all honesty. That’s not how I would ever operate.”
That focus is especially appropriate in the case of the South Sudanese trio who, as we wrote about this summer, are hopeful their basketball prowess will better position themselves to receive U.S. college educations. The three could practice but not suit up last year after arriving at Mooseheart via the African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education program.
From a basketball standpoint, Ahrens still has his concerns – none of the three, especially the 7-1 Nyang – are anything resembling polished offensive players. But Ahrens lights up discussing the juniors’ personalities and ability to mesh with teammates, despite becoming the obvious focal point of the season.
“I have no worries,” Ahrens said. “They have fit in extremely well. Our kids have accepted them extremely well, and I foresee no problem with them being good teammates because they’re all like brothers. We are like Mooseheart. That’s a different population we get on our campus. Everyone is very accepting of that.”
Opposing coaches might not be quite so cheery. While Nyang, Puou and Deng have plenty of strides to make if they are going to command D-I scholarship offers, their ability to contest shots, crash the glass and run the floor will make the Red Ramblers a sight to behold.
Combined with highly athletic guards Oumaru Abdulahi, a multisport standout who missed last year’s 12-18 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, and Kevin Gbadebo, the ingredients are in place for Mooseheart to be an exceptional defensive team.
Defense doesn’t fill seats, per conventional sports wisdom. But defense the way this Mooseheart team can play it – with opponents’ shots being swatted and turnovers leading to rim-rattling dunks – has the potential to prove otherwise.
Mooseheart isn’t usually a winter-night destination for area hoops fans. But the Ramblers, who upgraded their nonconference schedule to better challenge their new-look team, figure to play to a broader audience this season.
“I would love everyone to come out and see Mooseheart and the Mooseheart campus and see what we’re about,” Ahrens said. “If it happens through basketball, that’s great, that’s great for our Moose fraternity who gives us opportunities to have kids like that. It’s a great public relations thing for Mooseheart in general.”
Checking out these Ramblers is probably worth adding to your winter to-do list.
Just a few minutes’ drive from Fermilab, a mind-bending experiment is ready to take root.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.