Basketball in Shelbyville took on a different spirit back in 2013, when Upward Sports came to town.

Upward is an instructional basketball league, including cheer leading squads, for kindergarten through 6th grade for boys and girls, where everyone learns the skills.

The games are competitive, the score is kept (2nd-6th grade), but the emphasis is not on championships, rather good sportsmanship by the players and the parents. No one yells at the refs, their kid or the coaches. The only yelling is encouragement. The bonus is the players and parents get to hear the Good News.

There is a devotional moment for the kids at every team practice and at the half-time of every game for players and parents. A DVD with a gospel presentation is sent home with the kids to watch with their parents. At the season-ending awards day, players and parents are invited to pray and take Jesus as their Savior.

“It is a different atmosphere,” said Aaron Bruns, Upwards Co-Director. “We are blessed to have coaches that get the vision of Upward. We still compete, but it’s all positive.”

Upward Sports is a parachurch organization which currently partners with churches in over 40 denominations to share the gospel with children and their families. Since 1995, millions of young athletes have participated in sports programs run by churches using Upward Sports as a strategy to impact their communities.

“Our former pastor Greg Breeden (1st Nazarene Church) had the vision for it (in Shelbyville),” said Bruns. “He helped with an Upward Program in Cowden. When they (the church) built the family center, he wanted to run a league here.”

Bruns said that he and Pastor Breeden went to an Upward regional training in St. Louis. The Shelbyville Upward league started in 2013, with Bruns and his wife Becky as the co-directors. They have been in charge of the program ever since and just completed Upward’s 8th year in town.

The Bruns’ have three boys that are in the program. This year they were all in different age groups. The Bruns’ directed the program from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and had three different games to watch just for their family.

“Do we love it?” said Aaron. “Absolutely.”

The first year they had 67 participants. It grew steadily to 100, them 150, then 200. Last year, they had 240 and this was their biggest year, with 246 kids.

“It grew quick the first two or three years,” Aaron said. “We’re maxed out now, by the number of games we can play in a day.”

Game days are Saturday. Games start at 8 a.m. and the last game starts at 7:40 p.m.

The kids sign up and have an evaluation in November. They make teams that are even in ability, get volunteer coaches, and practices start in January. After 3 weeks of practice, the games begin. The seasons have always lasted 7 or 8 weeks.

There has always been other travel basketball teams for 4th and 5th grade boys in Shelbyville. However, Upward is for anyone who wants to sign up, regardless of ability and experience and for a greater age range, both boys and girls.

Sportsmanship and Christ-likeness by players and parents during the program is a goal of Upward.

“We are very proactive,” Becky said. “We have a meeting with coaches and parents at the beginning of the season to get everyone on the same page as far as expectations go. We always remind everyone involved that we’re an instructional league and to cheer for all kids.”

Unlike other leagues, where the better players play and others sit the bench, Upward wants to give everyone a chance to get better.

“Everybody that wants to can sign up and everyone on the team gets the same amount of playing time,” said Becky Bruns. “It’s different than travel ball in those regards.”

Aaron Bruns explained that there is a set substitution schedule for the games.

“The players are matched up by their abilities to keep the games fair and everybody gets to start a game,” Aaron said. “That way playing time is not on the coaches.”

Community support has been huge.

“What has impressed me is how Shelbyville and other communities have looked forward to the program every year,” Aaron said. “The kids know they will see their friends from the previous years from other schools and communities. The whole county has supported the program amazingly, coaches and parents.”

Shelbyville Upward has 48 volunteer coaches and referees that are from our own community, as well as surrounding ones.

“We have been greatly blessed by the support within our church for help with concessions, halftime devotions, and a clean-up crew every Saturday that finishes up about 9-9:15 p.m,” Becky said.

Altogether, there is about 65-70 volunteers in the program, from all over the county, Stewardson, Windsor, A&M, and even outside the county, from Pana and Arthur.

When the players graduate out of the program in 6th grade, the Upward Program in Shelbyville gives each one a Teen Devotional Bible.

“Last year a cheer coach said that she had talked to the girls about how Jesus died on the cross and one of the girls said, ‘You mean Jesus is real?’” Becky said. “It’s neat to watch the kids grow through the program and to know from kindergarten to 6th grade they are hearing the truth. Seeds are being planted.”

John Curtis can be reached at

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