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Brian Wardle, Heather Moles, and Bradley’s resiliency on and off the court

Bradley’s success on the court is linked to its success in the classroom.

Justin Birnbaum

ST. LOUIS — Nineteen months before winning Missouri Valley Conference Tournament MVP, Bradley forward Elijah Childs failed to see the correlation between school and basketball.

As someone who skated by on the bare minimum in the past, Childs was content doing the same when he arrived in Peoria.

But Heather Moles refused to accept that attitude. As Bradley’s Director of Academic Services, Moles has a responsibility to push each player in the classroom — a place most fans don’t often think of athletes inhabiting.

Moles sat down with Childs and compared studying to the rewarding feeling of being sore after a lift. She emphasized using the same mental approach toward schoolwork and pushing to focus harder, even when tired. Once Childs saw the improvement in his grades and quality of work, he bought in. As Moles put it, “he was a new man.”

“There’s no basketball without schooling,” Childs said. “She explained the importance to me, pushed me and got on me. I’m still working, it’s still a process, but she’s helping a lot along the way.”

Childs’ selection as one of the 14 athletes named to the 2019 MVC Scholar-Athlete Teams marked the completion of a transformation. Like many of his teammates, Childs now prides himself in how he performs in the classroom.

In addition to Childs, four other Bradley players earned scholar-athlete honors, the most of any school in the MVC. Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Nate Kennell and Luuk van Bree received second-team honors, while Childs and Koch Bar earned an honorable mention. Emphasis on education has been a hallmark of head coach Brian Wardle’s tenure in Peoria, as well as his insistence on recruiting high-character young men. As a former college player, Wardle is sympathetic to the stress of being a student-athlete and credits his guys for making “it look easy.”

“You gotta be sharp in the books at our school,” Wardle said. “We take a lot of pride in maintaining a very professional mentality in the classroom and on the court, and how we conduct ourselves in both areas. Because if you’re struggling in one, you’re going to struggle in the other.”

Justin Birnbaum

Dedication to schoolwork is part of what makes this Braves team so resilient. Bradley’s mental toughness was on full display after they erased an 18-point deficit to defeat Northern Iowa in the MVC Tournament championship game.

“[If] you have a bad test, you know you gotta bounce back on the next one,” Childs said. “You gotta bounce back on the next assignment, so I’m used to it. I’m used to bouncing back. This group is used to it, so it shows on the court.”

Bradley’s success both on the court and in the classroom is symptomatic of a larger trend in the Missouri Valley Conference. In the MVC, smart players aren’t limited to prowess in the classroom, they’re some of the top on-court performers. Five of the scholar-athlete selections were named on one of the three All-Conference teams. Four members of the Most Improved team were also scholar-athlete picks. Drake University’s Nick McGlynn, recognized as MVC Enterprise Bank and Trust Scholar-Athlete of the Year, finished first in MVC Defensive Player of the Year voting and second to Loyola Chicago’s Marques Townes as Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year.

Stressing education is not just a priority to Wardle, but other coaches in the Valley as well. A day before he stepped down as Southern Illinois head coach, Barry Hinson told a room full of reporters how he cried when Marcus Bartley earned Academic All-American honors. When recruiting players, Loyola University Chicago head coach Porter Moser makes only one promise – that his players will earn their college degree.

“I like that our league values being a student first and athlete second,” Wardle said.

What’s worth noting is the players being recognized for Bradley are important contributors, not back-of-the-bench players. In addition to Childs’ MVP efforts, the collection of scholar-athletes averaged 24.3 minutes per tournament game, three of which as starters (Lautier-Ogunleye, van Bree and Childs). Down the stretch in all three tournament games, Wardle mixed and matched with lineups featuring four scholar-athletes at times.

“I just love having those guys out there because they talk to the game,” Wardle said. “I always tell them, ‘talk the game.’ That means talk basketball — smart, mature basketball. Usually, guys who are handling themselves on and off the floor talk the game well.”

From the moment Wardle stepped on campus, he sought his players’ buy-in academically as much as athletically, understanding performance in the classroom would translate into performance on the basketball court. In doing so, he found an ally in Moles.

Working exclusively with Bradley’s men’s and women’s basketball programs during the school year, Moles is committed to raising academic expectations across the roster and generating results. Over the last 14 semesters, the Braves have posted a team GPA of at least 3.0, with a record cumulative 3.33 following the 2017-18 academic year.

Any college athlete has to reconcile their career will one day come to an end. Both Wardle and Moles agree it’s important for these young men to have something they’re genuinely interested in, invested in, and committed to after basketball.

“Well, we talk about Michael Jordan being a bazillionaire, not because he’s the best basketball player of all time, but he’s a phenomenal businessman and business is his legacy right?” Moles said. “Nobody’s outside of Foot Locker at midnight to buy the next Larry Bird shoes.”

Moles says finding that academic focus is not always an easy process, but with time and effort, it leads to success. The hardest part is getting a player to commit to their studies, a point Moles had to stress when Childs got to Bradley.

“The purpose is that Bradley is not for everybody and we tell them that from the very beginning,” Moles said. “You have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable because you can’t have growth without discomfort.”

But in the same way Moles helped Childs find his path in Sports Communications, she’s done so for the rest of the scholar-athletes on the team. Coming from South Sudan, Bar struggled with English but Moles channeled his “relentless” work ethic and found a home for his “phenomenal” art skills in graphic design. Netherlands native van Bree already knew he wanted to focus on international studies, but Moles continues to nurture his passion for the political scene. Lautier-Oguleye aspires to be a downtown London businessman and work in social media marketing for a professional sports franchise, a career Moles called a “very natural fit.” As a computer guy, Kennell found his niche in management information systems with Moles guiding him to the ideal balance between school and basketball.

“It’s just huge to just have someone who’s just there to guide you and just help you,” Kennell said. “Whether it’s school or even just life, she always has your back and she’s really able to support you so much. She is the key to success [as much as] anybody is.”

In the scramble after Sunday’s championship game ended, Childs sought out and embraced Moles. After the team took turns cutting down a piece of the net, Moles climbed the ladder and took her turn, briefly raising it proudly.

Winning the MVC and clinching an NCAA Tournament berth means Bradley doesn’t have to worry about when “the ball stops bouncing” for at least one more game. But that won’t stop Wardle from advising his players on their futures.

“Don’t let basketball use you,” Wardle said. “Use basketball. And that’s to try to better your life one day when you’re done playing.”