It did not compute: How could homeschooled kids have teams? But the games kept trickling in to my then-employer, the Billings Gazette, alongside scores from other area Christian-based, non-Montana High School Association schools.
So you got used to it, sort of.
Fast-forward a couple decades and Kenney, the former Georgia Tech guard-turned-pastor-turned-coach, is back at his last, best HomeSchool Nationals in Springfield, Missouri.
“This is the greatest thing,” he said late last week. “This is why I’ve been doing this since 1998.
“It’s mainly to help these girls socially, get them together, playing on a team. We’ve built our program up to where it’s really the top home school team in the state.”
Technically Mark Kenney, Charles’ son, is the Crusaders’ coach. He began his career as a player on the first FVHS boys’ team, thrown together shortly after the family’s arrival in Proctor, a few miles removed from Flathead Lake, in 1996.
“It was a mess,” recalled Mark, noting that unlike his dad or his brother Keith, he was an average basketball player. “I remember throwing up in the trash can the first time we ran.
“It was just a rag-tag group of kids with a coach who’d never played basketball. The kids were basically coaching themselves. That’s where my dad started inserting himself to where he eventually took over the program.”
Charles Kenney coached the boys for a time, guiding them to Montana Christian Athletic Association titles in 2001-03. As his granddaughters got closer to playing age he got involved with the girls.
“Twenty-one of them that I’ve coached have gotten married, and I’ve been to 19 of the weddings,” Charles said. “And half of them, I’m performing (the ceremony).”
Codi Kenney, daughter to Mark and granddaughter of Charles, is the leading scorer for this year’s Crusaders, who are currently 3-1 at nationals. When she’s not burying threes and home-schooling, she’s earning an associate degree from Flathead Valley Community College.
The background for this is of course, spiritual. The Crusaders, wearing shirts that read, “For Each Other,” and intra-valley rival Stillwater Christian are often the teams to beat in the MCAA.
“We have quotes, scripture,” said Charles. “We have the freedom to express ourselves and help them, spiritually. ‘For Each Other’ — that’s what they learn to play for.”
The level of play might not be that of MHSA teams or Oak Hill Academy (Keith Kenney played at Oak Hill and had a ride at Georgia Tech — he’s listed on the Warriors’ website, three spots below Jerry Stackhouse — before a knee injury), but it’s pretty OK.
The Crusaders have had players go to Walla Walla Community College and get recruited to the Frontier Conference. The year after one of their girls’ MCAA titles, one player headed for Bigfork and another for Stillwater; another former player, Julia Burden, was all-state in volleyball for Flathead High.
This isn’t something new: In 1993 Josh Flohr and Zach Robbins helped Billings Christian win an MCAA title; three years later they were crucial to Billings Central’s first-ever State A basketball crown.
That same year, 1996, the Kenneys lost their son Jason in a car crash. Charles, 53 at the time and owner of a successful painting business, gathered wife Carol and his two youngest boys and scouted Alaska and other spots.
“And nothing seemed to register,” he said. “And then someone said, ‘How about going to Montana… I didn’t even know where Kalispell was. I just felt like God told us to come out here and get a little group going.”
The group — the flock — he deals with most these days practices and plays at Trinity Lutheran when it can, and more than holds its own against similar competition.
Trinity is a ways away from sharing a court with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wes Unseld, which Kenney did while playing for Tech from 1964-67. But since the move Mark and his four siblings have all gotten married; Charles has grandchild No. 14 on the way.
“So it’s definitely our home now,” Charles Kenney says.
“It was a good move,” he said, then corrected himself: “It was a great move.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or email@example.com