After Donny Aeilts took over as Lincoln Christian University’s head basketball coach, he quickly learned to appreciate Zach Thompson.
A sophomore at the time, Thompson was getting it done in the gym. Yet, there was more to the Normal Community High School graduate than silky 3-pointers and a burgeoning inside game.
Aeilts saw it immediately.
“He put a lot of trust in me from the start,” Thompson said. “He took me aside and said, ‘We’re going to trust you to be the leader of this team.’”
“I think he trusted not only the athletic ability, but my ability to be a spiritual leader for the team,” Thompson said. “I made it a goal to be that spiritual leader for this team and help players around me grow and become better men of Christ.”
That’s who Thompson is. In his words, “Faith comes first and basketball second.” Give Aeilts credit for recognizing it so swiftly.
Now everyone knows. Validation came this past week when Thompson was presented the National Christian College Athletic Association’s Pete Maravich Award, which goes annually to the student who best represents Maravich’s athletic excellence and passion for ministry.
While scoring more than 2,150 points in his LCU career, Thompson also has served at churches in the community all four years, been involved with student ministry, preached to small groups at LCU and filled student government positions. A preaching ministry major, he has a 3.92 grade point average.
This, folks, is the complete package. And now, he is forever linked to Maravich, the former LSU All-American and NBA All-Star known for his flair on the court and devout faith off of it.
"That made it so humbling … to be put with that name,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t sure what my expectations were playing four years of college, but to be awarded this is just incredible. I feel so blessed.
“I think it’s a sign of the work God has done in my own life and the team’s life. I’m extremely honored and it’s a fitting end to my basketball career.”
A three-year team captain, Thompson finished No. 2 on Lincoln Christian’s career scoring list. His 200-plus 3-pointers came on 45 percent accuracy, best in school history.
Another number jumps out regarding the 6-foot-4 Thompson. He weighs 205 pounds.
That’s news for a guy who desperately sought to add weight in high school. It never happened, so as a starter on NCHS’ 2015 Class 4A state runner-up team, he weighed all of 170.
He will tell you more hours in the weight room at LCU helped. So did additional time at the dinner table.
“I started eating a lot more,” he said. “Part of that came with being active all the time. I was really hungry. Finally, the food was starting to turn into good weight.”
The added muscle enabled Thompson to be more productive inside at LCU. At 6-4, he was among the Red Lions’ tallest players and at times was in the post.
You wouldn’t have envisioned that during his time at NCHS, where his teammates included 6-8 Tyler Seibring and 6-7 Alex Peacock. Both have had stellar Division I careers, Seibring at Elon and Peacock at Texas State.
Hearing their names floods Thompson with memories.
“I think a lot about that team and those coaches and the guys,” he said. “I stay in touch with a lot of them. It was one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime.
“I give a lot of credit to Coach (Dave) Witzig for the confidence and the coaching he instilled in us to go on and not just be great basketball players, but great men. In hearing about the guys and how well they’re doing in school and life, that shows what a great coach he was and how well prepared we were.”
Next up for Thompson will be graduation in May and the start of his career in ministry. He has been hired as an associate pastor of young adults at the church he grew up attending, Eastview Christian in Normal.
As for basketball, he currently helps coach a sixth-grade travel team. Coaching is attractive to him, providing “another opportunity to help young kids grow and become better players and better men.”
He is uniquely qualified.
To share a link with Pete Maravich, you have to be.