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Coach posts 20-win seasons weekly church attendance

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (BP)–The woman who says she has the best job in America is hard at work. Her job is to motivate a dozen young women to work harder than they have ever worked.

Harder than any of their peers at other schools are working. She follows the players up and down the court, using her voice to run them through various drills, dishing out compliments and critiques, dispensing advice. “Make yourself better at what you don’t do well.”

For their efforts, the young women get to be part of one of the nation’s most successful college basketball programs — the Southwest Missouri State University Lady Bears. Architect of the program is Cheryl Burnett.

Burnett’s Lady Bears have notched seven consecutive 20-win-plus seasons, multiple Missouri Valley Conference titles, an NCAA final four appearance and too many other honors to mention.

And the Lady Bears lead the nation in average attendance for women’s college basketball over the past six years.

Ten years ago, however, Burnett was on the verge of leaving the Springfield campus after three years as an assistant coach. She had accepted an assistant’s position at another school when the head coaching job at SMSU became available. Unsure what she should do, she went to her church when no one was there and she prayed.

Praying helped give her peace about the situation. Soon afterward she was named head coach at SMSU. And she is an active member of Hamlin Memorial Baptist Church to this day. “I’ve often said that one of the biggest reasons I’m still in Springfield is because of my home church,”
the Centralia, Mo., native confirmed. Dozens of church members have season tickets to Lady Bears games; they sit together in a section opposite the SMSU bench. In a close game, the coach noted, “I know they’re praying right over there.”

Cheryl grew up in First Christian Church of Centralia. She was baptized there while in middle school. “I went to all the Baptist revivals,” she recalled.

During her college playing career at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, she found the team often had games or practices on Sunday. So she started going to Catholic mass on Saturday evening.

“I thought the greatest thing was learning to kneel to pray,” she said. “What a great thing to get down on your knees.”

After moving to Springfield, Burnett started attending Hamlin Memorial because her brother-in-law, Terry Dorr, was on staff there. She “struggled a little” with the idea of being rebaptized, but when she did, “I just felt an inner washing.” She now counts that experience among the spiritual high points in her life.

Asked how much influence her Christian faith has on her approach to the job, she answered: “Absolutely, totally.” Maintaining the integrity of the program takes top priority. The growth of women’s basketball and its increasing status as a revenue producer — accompanied by more media attention and more pressure to win — have
created pitfalls for some schools.

“Everything we do is for the development of our players for a lifetime — not just wins on a basketball court,” Burnett said. “And for us it’s Christian principles.”

She acknowledged the need to maintain a line between church and state in a public institution. All the coaches are quite conscious that they are role models, she said, and they remind one another of this fact.

The church offers prayer support. Two of Burnett’s assistants, Lynnette Robinson and Karen Rapier, also are members of Hamlin Memorial. Pastor Calvin Maberry said the ministerial staff prays “not that they win ball games, but because they’re in such a position to impact young ladies, that they present a good example for them.”

Burnett’s approach to coaching is simple. “We want to be more prepared than anybody else.” She recalled one of the wisest things she ever heard was from a highly successful businessman who said, “If you want to be really good at something, all you have to do is spend a couple of extra hours a day at it.”

The lessons she wants her players to learn are similarly straightforward. Hard work will pay off. Discipline will carry over. Determination, a never-say-die attitude, competitiveness and responsibility will help a person in all areas of life.

Burnett relates to players on another level as well. One of the biggest compliments she has received came in a letter from a former player who wrote: “The best thing you ever said to me was the day you asked me to go to church.” Although she deflects to her church any credit for influencing people in their Christian walk, she acknowledged
some special moments seeing people around her grow spiritually.

Jim Middleton, now in his third year as head women’s basketball coach at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., formerly was one of Burnett’s assistants at SMSU. “I think of Cheryl as a sister,” he said. “We’re family.

“There has never been any question at all about her faith in God,” noted Middleton, a member of First Baptist Church, Bolivar. “Even though she was in a public school setting, she let it be known about her faith.”

He admires Burnett’s abilities as an organizer. “Her idea of a program is based upon hard work — a work ethic, if you will — and faith in God.

“God wants us to work,” Middleton continued. “Her expectations are high; I think God’s expectations are high.”

Charity Shira, Middleton’s assistant coach at SBU, was a member of the 1991-92 Lady Bears team that won 31 games and advanced to the “final four” of the NCAA tournament. She attributed that group’s success to Burnett’s emphasis on unselfish play.

“The team always comes first; you as an individual come second,” said Shira, a member of Second Baptist Church, Springfield. “And that’s very scripturally based.”

Burnett enjoys the fact that athletics is a mixing pot. “That’s why I think basketball is really a glorious sport.” With their different economic, religious and racial backgrounds, she pointed out, her players would not get to know each other if not for the team. “Sports is an incredible avenue for a lot of things. It’s a way to bring people together, even our fans.”

Burnett said it’s “wonderful having a job in the Bible Belt, where our program has gotten respect for the principles and values we’re attempting to teach through basketball. This truly is the best job in America.”

Maintaining such a high success level presents a constant challenge to the coach. “It’s really a12-months-a-year business.”

In her free time, Burnett likes to go back to nature. That might mean an outing on the boat she keeps at Table Rock Lake or riding horses with her sister and brother-in-law.

Traveling for pleasure (as opposed to recruiting trips), shopping and relaxing in her new home are other activities she enjoys. “I like to do nice, everyday things when I have a chance.”

Her everyday Sunday thing is worshiping at Hamlin Memorial. Just as it was 10 years ago, the church is her refuge and anchor. “I feel so engulfed in Christian love outside of my job. I can keep my direction of what’s really important in life, with the support of my church.”

Coach Burnett said her favorite verse of Scripture is Isaiah 40:31, and she collects eagles. “It’s athletic-oriented in a way,” she noted. “When you’re weak, the Lord will left you up as if on wings of eagles.”

Grounded in faith and strengthened by hard work, Cheryl Burnett and the Lady Bears continue to soar.

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  • Tim Palmer