Summer 2024

Smaller schools using football, volleyball national championship stage to glorify God

‘Tis the season for fall championships in collegiate athletics, and while most of the attention goes to the bigger programs at the Division I level, impressive feats are also being turned in by some schools competing for national championships at the lower levels. In the past few weeks, three schools in particular have battled for titles while also striving to bring glory to God.

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On Saturday, Harding University (Searcy, Arkansas) captured its first football national title by scoring 38 unanswered points to beat the Colorado School of Mines in the Division II national championship game. The Bisons rushed for 502 yards in the 38-7 victory, while running back Blake Delacruz set a D-II championship game record with 202 yards on 27 carries.

In the postgame press conference, head coach Paul Simmons praised his team’s selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for one another. He pointed to Jesus as the example he wants his players trying to emulate.

“The message in the pregame is, ‘Guys, what brings more honor to God than giving your very best?'” Simmons said. “Your very best. To be completely exhausted. And to do it because you love somebody, right? That’s the example. That’s the example that came from Christ.”

Later in the press conference, Simmons built on something he said after Harding advanced to the national championship game. Simmons declared that his goal was not to win national titles but to honor God by having the best culture in the country. For him, success is defined by the personal growth of his players, not the scoreboard.

“I’ve said for a long, long time that, man, if we get it done and win a national championship but nobody modeled to you what it means to be a Christian father and a Christian husband, and nobody showed you how to lead by serving, then the whole thing was a waste of time and we have failed,” Simmons said Saturday.

Harding is a private university with a mission of providing “a quality education that will lead to an understanding and philosophy of life consistent with Christian ideals,” according to its website.


Eleven days before Harding won its national championship, the Indiana Wesleyan (Marion, Indiana) women’s volleyball team capped off a perfect 38-0 season by beating top-seed Northwestern College. The last time a team went unbeaten in the NAIA was 2017.

The Wildcats dropped the first and third sets but won the final two by a combined score of 40-27 to clinch the program’s first national title.

A large crowd was on hand to welcome the team when they got back to campus. As part of the celebration, fans joined the players in their tradition of breaking huddles by saying “for Him.”

IWU President Dr. Jonathan Kulaga, who watched the championship match at a watch party on campus, told the school’s website, “I love that these players value volleyball but more importantly they value the Christ-centered experience they receive at IWU and the team’s focus on discipleship. They are a very special group.”

“It’s just a great way to glorify God in everything we do and make sure that He is at the center of who we are,” sophomore Eva Joldersma said in a video posted to the school’s YouTube channel.

Indiana Wesleyan is “committed to changing the world by developing Christlike students who live with character, pursue academic excellence, and exhibit exemplary leadership qualities,” according to the school’s website.


The team IWU defeated, Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa), is a faith-based program as well. The school’s mission is to be a “Christian academic community engaging students in courageous and faithful learning and living that empowers them to follow Christ and pursue God’s redeeming work in the world,” according its website.

Northwestern’s volleyball team won the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament title for the first time since 2014, and then advanced to its first-ever national championship match.

“Our goals for our gals are a couple things,” head coach Kyle Van Den Bosch said in a video posted by the school. “One is, can they grow in their relationship with Christ? We have a lot of things where they can have opportunities to grown in their faith, from devotions to prayer partners.”

Northwestern also competed for the NAIA national championship in football. They entered Monday’s game 14-0, on a 27-game winning streak, and were the defending national champions, having defeated Keiser University in 2022. But Keiser won the rematch this year, 31-21.

Northwestern was led by junior quarterback Jalyn Gramstad, who was named NAIA Player of the Year. In a video posted by the school, Gramstad talked about the ways Northwestern has prepared him for life after college and helped him grow in his faith.

“I’ve really seen myself take ownership of my faith and really wanting to put the Lord first with everything I do,” he said.

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