Faith over fear: Arizona Christian stands behind beliefs amid NAIA Sweet 16 appearance

(Video by Lauren Avenatti/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – Tough, smart and unselfish.

That’s the motto the Arizona Christian University men’s basketball team has used to secure its spot in the Sweet 16 of the 2024 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics basketball tournament.

The 25-7 Firestorm blazed through their fourth straight conference tournament in the first two rounds, capturing wins against the University of Saint Katherine and Huntington University in the ACU Events Center. They play against Indiana Wesleyan University Friday in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Tough, smart and unselfish are our core values and we want to recruit guys that have those characteristics,” Firestorm coach Jeff Rutter said Monday. “That’s part of our screening process, making sure you need to be a good player and fit what we’re looking for in a given year.”

Rutter is no stranger to success, as he has led the program to a combined 281-99 record in his 12th season as head coach. However, it’s not solely about the performance on the court. Rutter knows that how players conduct themselves off the court is essential to the construction of a successful team.

“We want guys that want to engage in spiritual development, growing in their faith and academically, we want to see growth,” Rutter said. “So we’ve seen a lot of improvements this year from those guys that came in with a certain GPA and have just had their best semesters ever.

“We’ve had several of those this year, personal growth, character growth, like those are all focuses and then obviously the skill development, I think we do really well here and really pay a lot of time and attention to that.

An example of a player in that criteria would be junior guard and two-year starter Trent Hudgens. He gained traction from the program because of his best friend, senior guard Dominic Gonzales.

The two played basketball together at Ironwood High School in Glendale, and even captured a state championship in the school’s first appearance in 2020. Hudgens and Gonzales helped the Eagles defeat No. 1 Millennium High School in Goodyear, 78-70.

After high school, Hudgens had difficulty finding his footing with NCAA programs. He spent the 2020-21 season with Santa Clara University, before transferring to the University of Northern Colorado the following season.

When Hudgens stepped foot in Arizona Christian’s events center, he felt the family atmosphere that he didn’t receive from his previous two schools.

“I don’t really have one story but I would just say on the other teams I’ve been on, while I was in college, each team has their own individual groups and I would say on this team, everybody has that camaraderie and everybody loves each other,” Hughes said.

Gonzales was elated when his best friend joined him in the 2022-23 season. Witnessing Hudgens’s journey from high school, to navigating two different universities, and now landing at Arizona Christian, Gonzales knew that his best friend deserved to be at his new school.

“It’s been such a blessing,” Gonzales said. “Trent is one of my closest friends. I’ve known him seeing him grow from where he was at high school to now. It’s night and day and I’m just super proud of him. Every day, he works so hard. He definitely earns the right to be out there and play a lot and he’s a great player, too, so it’s awesome.”

The Arizona Christian Firestorm advance to the NAIA Sweet 16 after winning a fourth straight conference championship in the 2023-24 season. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Christian Athletics)

The Arizona Christian Firestorm advance to the NAIA Sweet 16 after winning a fourth straight conference championship in the 2023-24 season. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Christian Athletics)

Hudgens echoed Gonzales’ sentiment and said Gonzales encouraged his former teammate to join him at Arizona Christian.

“He said it best, it’s truly a blessing,” Hughes said. “After my sophomore year in college, I was actually about to stop playing basketball and it actually helped me get to ACU. So Dom has been a huge blessing in my life and such a great friend.”

With the two friends united on the basketball court once again, Rutter saw how quickly they connected, along with the rest of their teammates.

“That’s one of the reasons you coach, to watch guys grow and come together in a group,” Rutter said. “We had a good group of talented guys that played a lot and then we added a talented group of newcomers from various programs. So whenever you do that, that’s going to take some time to put that all together and that’s kind of what we knew.

“I was confident we were going to be pretty good, but I didn’t think it would be until February or March and I think I was correct on that. It just took time.”

Rutter wasn’t joking about taking time. The Firestorm suffered back-to-back losses against Multnomah and Montana Western by double-digit points in December that could have shifted the direction of the season. Luckily for Hudgens, he understood Rutter’s point about needing time to find a rhythm.

“We’ve been able to build off each other a lot during the season,” Hughes said. “We dealt with a lot of adversity after our first loss. It was kind of a win-loss, win-loss situation. We’ve been playing all together and having fun together, just going to get better and better each game.”

So much of the Firestorm’s success has been because of their faith and trust in something greater than themselves. Although basketball is a high-pressure game, Gonzales said, there’s no pressure when he steps out on the hardwood.

“It allows you to play completely free,” Gonzales said. “It’s not performance-based. My identity isn’t in a basketball game going out and hitting threes. My identity is found in Christ. My value doesn’t come from a game but it comes from just allowing me to play.”

Hudgens admitted that on his previous basketball teams, he didn’t have the freedom he has since joining Arizona Christian. As a result, not only has his basketball production increased, but he has grown increasingly content with whatever the final result is.

“So I was a God-fearing man, but I didn’t have God in my life as much as I do now,” Hughes said. “I can say that I’m much more free and I’m not really a performance-based player anymore like I used to be and I used to listen to the outside noise, but now I just give everything to God and whatever happens, happens.”

While Division I schools like Grand Canyon University and the University of Arizona have more-than-recognizable basketball programs in the state, the Firestorm are making their case heard to the world. For Rutter and his crew, he encourages anyone willing to come to a Firestorm game and witness how competitive the NAIA is.

“We’re not on TV, as often as those, so it’s just less visible,” Rutter said. “So we encourage high school coaches to come out and players come out and we get some to take us up on that. We’d love to do that. We’d love to host anybody at a game any time and I think, see for (themselves).”

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.

Lauren Avenatti(she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Lauren Avenatti expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism from the Cronkite School and Barrett, The Honors College. Avenatti is interning with FOX Sports in the media operations department.