WHITLEY COUNTY — Whitley County homeschoolers are part of the backbone of one of the area’s most successful sports programs. The Cornerstone Lady Warriors homeschool basketball program recently finished a perfect 11-0 season with its junior high team, resulting in an Indiana Christian Basketball Alliance state championship.

Though the program has flown under the radar over its 10-year history — in contrast to school-affiliated teams — the Lady Warriors have amassed two 14U state championships, two 16U state championships and seven state final fours between the varsity and junior high.

One of the program’s intentions is to be inclusive, regardless of skill level, and it seems to be paying off.

“We don’t expect kids to be pro players, but we do expect them to work hard at getting better, no matter what level they’re at,” varsity coach Adam Griner said. “This past season, more than any other season, the team was very intentional from the offseason on last year to work harder to be in better shape. They all responded really well to that, and I believe that led to some of our on-the-court success.”

The program is open to homeschooled girls ages 10-18 from all surrounding counties, including Allen, Whitley, Noble, DeKalb and Kosciusko. Thirteen of the program’s 19 players attend homeschool in Whitley County. Five of those players — Ava Blair, Lydia Parker, Natalie Blair, Faith Myers and Maggie Blair — are from Churubusco. Teammates Kaylee McCoy, Mercy Grant, Emma Hammond, Grace Hammond, Melissa McCoy, Rachel Bone, Faith Hammond and Emily Young live in Columbia City.

Other players include Maddy S., Elizabeth Smith (Albion), Annaka Nelson (Fort Wayne), Makayla Yoder (Spencerville), Rachel Fry (Garrett) and Savanna Young (Spencerville).

The teams practice in Columbia City, Churubusco and Fort Wayne, while the coaching staff re-evaluates practice locations each season in order to best accommodate family driving distances.

Following each regular season, teams compete in the ICBA State Tournament, as well as major postseason tournaments such as the Midwest Regional Homeschool Championships in Springfield, Mo.

Players also have the opportunity to go on an annual mission trip to Guatemala, through a partnership with Cultivate Church in Laotto, where they participate in basketball camps at several schools, connecting with hundreds of Guatemalan students in a Christian-based mission through the game of basketball.

“That whole mission is just amazing. It’s not just about basketball, it’s about sharing Christ and helping the communities with their needs,” Matt Blair, a Churubusco resident and head coach for Cornerstone’s junior high team, said.

Blair has gone on mission trips to Guatemala for the past two years, and recently brought his oldest daughter, Maggie, with him.

“Those are life-changing events going down there, and it’s had a strong impact on Maggie being a representative of the Lady Warriors down there, and also sharing the Gospel with them,” Blair said. “One of our players this year is also volunteering for the Special Olympics. It’s just amazing what our ladies take on.”

The Cornerstone program has also cultivated players who eventually go on to impact high school and collegiate programs.

Meleah Leatherman, of Albion, is just one example. After playing for the Lady Warriors in junior high, Leatherman went on to play at Central Noble High School, where she was part of the school’s state championship team last year. This year, she will suit up for the University of Saint Francis.

“She has said how this program has impacted her, learning basketball and good character lessons when she was younger, and we have some current players who are certainly interested in playing basketball in college, so we’re working with them toward that,” Griner said. “I think it’s tremendously beneficial for these young ladies. We push them hard on the court, but we also challenge them with character growth and leadership. They could be leaders in their community or their church in the future, and that’s really one of our goals.”

Of course, Cornerstone’s players are encouraged to bring that attitude to the game as well.

“When they see another player on our team go down, they’re there to help them up and encourage them,” Griner said. “They create friendships even across the teams that we play.”

The Cornerstone program is entirely self-funded, not having a school district to back them up, but the coaches try to minimize costs through fundraisers.

“We’re very grateful to the surrounding communities and businesses for their support,” Blair said.

Anyone interested in the program can contact Griner at 574-527-7573 or dadamg@live.com, or Blair at 260-704-7496 or mablair4@hotmail.com.

The team’s progress can be followed on Facebook at Facebook.com/CornerstoneLadyWarriorHomeSchoolBasketball.