WINNSBORO — Saves and high school athletics usually bring to mind a baseball or softball game. For Richard Winn Academy starting point guard Carson Justice and her coach Jason Haltiwanger, a save or being saved is forever linked to basketball.
Last season during the pregame prayer before the state championship game, Justice gave her heart to Christ and says she was saved. The story could have ventured into the realm of the cliche where the team then went on to win the game as if some heavenly intervention meant that God was on the Eagles’ side.
But it did not. Instead, RWA lost by four in the state finals.
Before that state championship game in 2012, Haltiwanger read a devotion about greatness that students could achieve as high school athletes. The greatness he spoke of was not winning a state championship, but it was gaining the knowledge that they were saved by the greatest champion of all time: Christ.
“As they called out the lineup I was sitting on the bench crying,” Justice said. “I had heard God’s voice speaking to me and realized I wanted (being saved and a stronger relationship with Christ).”
While she played hard and to the best of her ability, at that point she said she was not worried about the game. It was that moment, the shift in perspective, that she credits with helping her become the leader that has her team two wins away from a championship this season, despite the graduation of All-Conference center Alex Maas.
“As I’ve matured I learned there are more important things in life than winning,” she said. “Knowing that my girls know they are worth something in life and beautiful because God created them that way means much more than wanting to always win. After all, in order for a team to win a game, someone has to lose.”
According to Justice, basketball is about building character and more about life lessons and growing closer to God than it is about basketball.
Since Richard Winn is a private school, Haltiwanger has the leeway to discuss religion with his players, something he does regularly. Coach Halt, as he is called, quotes Mark 3:25 to his players, telling them how a house divided against itself cannot stand. He also reads a passage from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12, to them before the pregame prayer, a passage that mentions the body of Christ and how all body members have their role, just as all believers have a role in the church.
“Everyone has a role. If you do your role, you can win championships,” said Haltiwanger, who was more excited by a freshman taking her first charge of the season late in a game than he did by winning the region tournament. “If you are discontent with your role, dissention comes in. I ask them all the time to accept their role with humility. It may not be big to the public, but the role is critical to the team.”
Haltiwanger said there are no secrets on his team. Justice noted the strong team chemistry that he and she work to nurture among all of the players.
Mother-daughter bond evolving
Justice’s mother, Rebekah Coleman, helps out with keeping statistics for the team. She noticed the chemistry is a lot like it was when she was a junior and senior, the last two times Richard Winn won the state championship in ‘88-‘89 and ‘89-‘90. She played point guard and shooting guard on that team, just like Carson does now for RWA. Coleman said she was more of a scorer and passer than a pure shooter but that her 5-foot-10 daughter has the shooting touch for three-pointers that she lacked.
“Carson is so much more developed physically and mentally than I ever was,” she said. “Her first word was ‘ball’ and she has been dribbling a ball since age 3.”
She supports her daughter’s dreams of playing collegiately and has taken her to basketball camps since Carson was 8 years old. But Coleman’s basketball playing days are behind her.
Perhaps the circumstances behind her hanging up her sneakers are one reason her daughter seems to have wisdom beyond her years. In recent years she has undergone five back operations and suffered two strokes. Keeping stats for the team helps give her a sense of purpose as she works to carve out a new normal in life.
Seeing her mother endure that is something Justice said helps her keep life in perspective. According to her coach, the teen’s influence helps her mother keep things in perspective, too.
“The change in Carson has impacted her mom and that’s been neat to watch,” Haltiwanger said.
Other adults who support her include her dad and stepmother, Chuck and Valenica Justice, and her grandfather Jimmy Ray Douglas. Emily Brigman, her sister, is on the team, too. Her little sister Meredyth Justice, plays on the middle school team and Justice knows that her eyes are on her wherever she goes.
The close sisterly bond helps her as she navigates teenage life while living out a pretty public faith life. That can put her in difficult spots, such as being bullied for standing out, but through it all, her coach said she is learning to stand true to her convictions.
Her mother is so appreciative of the influence Haltiwanger and his wife have had on her daughter.
“Coach Halt has been an inspiration and a good role model on and off the court for her and for that I will always be grateful,” she said. “Carson now says she was talent to bring others closer to God herself and she remains steadfast in her convictions. This gave her a code of ethics to live by and she loves her school and teammates. She amazes me daily.”
Living a life of faith
Justice, who carries a 3.5 GPA, is active in the Richard Winn Fellowship of Christian Athletes. An all-region volleyball player, she also is the student government historian and likely will play softball again next school year. This year she focused more on basketball in hopes of enhancing her chances to play in college.
She is considering Lander, USC Upstate, Coastal Carolina and Francis Marion at this point and has goals of studying nursing.
Justice has become more active in the church since last spring. She attends church youth events at Camp Bonclarken during the school year and each summer she attends a weeklong ministry in Appalachia. She recently attended the Disciple Now program, a big youth event with a band and guest speaker that she has attended the past three years. The program is staffed by Columbia International University students.
The work in Appalachia raises money for less fortunate children. They also do Vacation Bible School and witness in the town which sits in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. She has volunteered in Appalachia three summers along with youth from the Chester ARP Church.
If point guards are graded in terms of wins and losses, Justice ranks highly because in four years she has never lost a region game. Haltiwanger’s system is challenging with over 30 set plays and 3-5 different presses being employed at a time.
“She’s really done well for us since that home game against Mid-Carolina High,” Haltiwanger said. She has been on a tear, playing smarter and better with more focus. During that stretch Justice has had a 6:2 assist to turnover ratio.
Having a steadying influence at team captain has helped a young team come together and exceed the expectations many had for them this season. Depth, speed, and teamwork have them on the verge of finishing some unfinished business from a year ago.
At press time the semifinal results were not in for Richard Winn, but if Justice can lead her team to victory in Thursday night’s game, they will play at the Sumter Civic Center on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. for the SCISA AA State Championship.