BELTON- Kyle Wright still remembers the sinking feeling. And that was eight years ago.
He never expected to be cut from his seventh-grade basketball team, but for the UMHB guard, it only fueled his fire, serving as motivation in the years that followed.
“In seventh grade, in my city, and in my school, I was looked at as one of the better players in my grade,” Wright recalls. “But I got cut because I was too short. I remember texting my mom in school. I was crying, and had a test the next period. I was devastated.”
“In eighth grade, I made the A team.”
For as long ago as that may seem, it shaped his basketball career moving forwards. Standing at 5’10, Wright is the shortest player on UMHB’s roster, and quickly became aware that something was going to have to separate him from the rest of competition. It was a matter of finding what that was that became the new challenge.
“I always knew since high school that I was going to have to be different in some type of way,” Wright recently said. “But being young, I always thought that was just offensively. [UMHB head] Coach [Clif] Carroll really brought out the defensive side in me last year.”
That defensive focus has molded the Texarkana native into a superior defender that has tallied 22 steals for the Cru this season. Everything he does is with an unrivaled intensity, such as the play he made in the Jan. 27 win over Hardin-Simmons.
With the ball headed out of bounds, most of the action on the floor stopped. Wright remained in motion, however, balancing on one foot while gathering the loose ball, which he then threw to teammate DJ Kane while falling out of bounds. It set up a Carson Hammond three-pointer, one of those “hustle plays” that will not find its way into a box score, but was undoubtedly important in the 82-76 win.
“I would describe myself as just a tough player,” Wright said. “That was sort of the role given to me last year, and I had to learn how to grow into it because that wasn’t always my playing style.”
He has found a way to add scoring into that role this season as well, with 6.1 points per game, and two double-digit scoring efforts within the last three weeks. At Ozarks on Jan. 13, Wright recorded a career night, tying his collegiate-best mark in points, 19, and steals, three.
“Kyle has been steadily getting better,” Carroll said of Wright following that performance. “He’s a high-energy guy, and a super defensive player. He’s got offensive skills where, if we get him into a spot where we can take care of his strengths and stay away from his weaknesses, he’s pretty good.”
Wright and Carroll’s paths came together in Belton from opposite parts of the Lone Star State. In April of 2015, the head coach took the job at UMHB, following five seasons in far West Texas as Sul Ross State’s head coach. A couple of months later, Wright made the decision to transfer to UMHB from Texas A&M-Texarkana, as Thomas Orr, whom he had previously connected with, was named the assistant coach.
“He had seen me play in high school, so he knew some of the things I could do,” Wright said of Orr. “My first school just wasn’t a good fit, and when I was looking to transfer, I talked to Coach Orr, who was at Ozarks at the time.
“The summer comes, he asks me if I’m still ready to transfer, and I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m ready to go.’ Once he got the job at UMHB, I texted him ‘Congratulations’. And he said, ‘Come with me to Belton.’ It was done from there. I didn’t want to go into a situation where I didn’t know anybody and nobody had seen me play in high school. It was a good fit when Coach Orr came.”
And Wright has proven to be a good fit for the Cru. He has started 13 games, playing in a total of 15, this season. Last year, as UMHB went 13-0 in ASC play under Carroll, the junior guard tallied 6.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, seeing action in 18 of the Cru’s 20 games. So far, the success has continued into this year. UMHB is 15-2, and leading the ASC standings by a half-game entering Monday’s road duel at LeTourneau .
“This season has been pretty fun,” Wright noted. “Even with a lot of new guys, we’ve all gelled really well. We’ve really just picked up where we left off last year.”
Confidence, toughness and effort combine in Wright’s skill set. Early on, he said that football was his No. 1 sport. But that changed once in middle school, and the coaching staff at UMHB is certainly glad that is the route he took. Because the Texarkana native has brought an enthusiasm and intensity that only seems to up the level of play from those around him.
“We call Kyle the bulldog,” Carroll said. “He’s tough. He finds a way to get the job done.”
Riley Zayas covers UMHB athletics for True To The Cru and the Belton Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.