SOAR team mixes dunks, testimonies

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com

   While cheerleading teams brainstorm for new cheers and routines to entertain crowds at halftime periods, a group of Liberty University students have taken a somewhat different approach.
   With the double-meaning team name SOAR, the eight ministry students travel around the United States wowing sports fans and high school students with their extreme style of slam-dunking basketballs.
   "SOAR stands for Soul'd Out And Ready," said team leader and Liberty graduate Mike Britton. "We are soul'd out and giving our lives to Jesus Christ, and we're always ready to go out there and give an answer to what lies within us. It also stands for soar, because we soar through the air and dunk basketballs."
   The team members place small trampolines in front of the basketball goal, and launch themselves high into the air before coming down and dunking the ball through the hoop. The members eventually work their way into doing twists, flips, around-the-back and through-the-legs dunks, double and backwards jumps, and various other tricks during "hang time."
   SOAR was born in 1992 as a discipleship team called Youthquest, which traveled to church youth groups sharing the gospel. Britton, who joined in '97, said a group bridged off in 2000 and evolved into an evangelistic team. "We speak about abstinence and drugs in public schools, and discipleship in Christian schools," he said.
   The basketball dunking was introduced into the mix when an early team member of what was originally a gymnastic team grabbed a basketball and put it through the hoop.
   "It happened from there," Britton said.
   The team has eight members, seven of which are current Liberty students. Terry Tankard, a junior Biblical studies major, serves as the team's DJ. The team has three freshmen; youth ministry major Lucas Johnson, Joel Griffiths, who is undecided, and Bristol native Nick Stevens, a government major.
   Mike Brameltte and Stephen (Babyface) Hamilton, both juniors, are Biblical studies majors. The team has one senior, Bill Rodriguez, who is majoring in youth ministries. Britton graduated from Liberty University in 2002.
   "I'm in charge of the team, but I'm surrounded by amazing guys," Britton said. "I do this full time, and have a job that's part time."
   Liberty sponsors SOAR, paying for them to perform and speak at high schools, while carrying out recruitment purposes at the same time. If the team chooses to travel to a middle or elementary school, however, the expenses come from the team's pocket, or from a love offering that they accept when they do shows.
   Often, the ministry team arrives a day early, and does halftime shows at local events, as was the case at a Milligan vs. King College basketball game on February 17.
   Stevens, a graduate of Virginia High School in Bristol, found SOAR to be perfect for him. "I came to Liberty and I just wanted to get involved in ministry."
   As an athlete that played both football and baseball in high school, Stevens missed the active lifestyle of playing a sport.
   "There's a void when you go to college and you don't get to play sports," he said. "I like doing extreme sports, and I'm passionate about Christ, so it was a great combination."
   Britton and Stevens both agreed that the slam-dunking aspect of the team works as a vehicle to put the members in a position to share their message with kids.
   "With all the extreme sports today, it gets the kids' attention," Britton said. "Then you can speak from that platform."
   "We're a ministry team first. We just dunk balls for fun -- that's what we usually say," Stevens added with a laugh. "If we didn't dunk, we wouldn't have that opportunity. It's kind of hard to break through that level and get personal with them."
   Stevens said dunking the basketball is similar to the adrenaline rush achieved from other sports. "Your adrenaline is going," he said. "It's a lot like other sports, like when you're trying to catch a football or make a tackle. We try to entertain and give glory to God at the same time."
   Britton said that prospective team members must be able to deliver their message and also meet the physical demands of the extreme style of slam-dunking. He said that SOAR often accepts members who display both traits but may have less athletic ability over someone who is an excellent dunker but isn't passionate about the work that the team does.
   "Our main purpose is to talk to kids," Britton said. "We share our life experiences to help them through their teenage years. Dunking basketballs is just a bonus."
   Stevens said that the team uses a different approach in their message depending on the type of school they're speaking at. "If it's a Christian school, we give a message on God and Jesus, and if it's a public school, we do a message on striving for goals, and anti-drugs and alcohol. We talk to the kids, and give personal testimonies."
   A typical trip to a high school begins with the team introducing themselves, handing out prizes, and having the students fill out recruitment cards for Liberty University. They do a longer dunk show at schools than is allowed during a typical halftime, and invite volunteers to try the extreme dunks.
   The team, which charges nothing to the high schools they visit, tailor their message to the needs of the school. SOAR can be contacted through email at soardunk@hotmail.com, or Britton can be reached at 410-967-1453.