MELISSA – Melissa senior Kenneth Castleberry Jr. had plenty to smile about on May 22 at Melissa High School. That’s when the Cardinals’ two-time First-Team All-District guard signed his National letter of intent to play basketball for McPherson College in Kansas - surrounded, of course, by teammates, friends and family.

“I’m excited,” he said shortly after putting pen to paper. “It’s been a lot of hard work. It’s like a relief, but I’ve still got to keep practicing, keep getting better.”

Castleberry is also a three-time Academic All-District honoree and was named the team’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year this past season.

“He just brought so many winning moments to us in big games,” Melissa head basketball coach Eric Benton said. “There were games were maybe he wasn’t scoring a ton and then all of a sudden, in a moment that we needed him, he would explode for two or three big shots. He’s just a winner. I think he’s going to bring that to the next level too. When the lights shine bright, he really steps up and enjoys that stage.”

Benton has family who’ve played basketball for McPherson, and a sister-in-law who’s on staff there in the athletic department. “I could not be more excited for ‘Junior’ to go be a part of McPherson College and the basketball program there,” Benton said. “That’s a place that loves basketball. They are basketball fanatics in that entire city.”

Located in McPherson, Kan., the NAIA McPherson College Bulldogs compete in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference. Castleberry said he really liked the team when he got a chance to play with them recently. “And I like the atmosphere of the college,” he added. Castleberry said he plans to study business “and learn about stocks.”

The Cards made the playoffs all three years of Castleberry’s varsity tenure and claimed two bi-district playoff wins, including last season’s victory over 20th-ranked Dallas Pinkston. In that one, Castleberry posted a team-high three 3s - and his NBA-and-then-some trey gave Melissa the lead for good, 47-45, with four minutes left to play.

“No one really believed in us,” Castleberry said of that memorable game. “Everyone thought we would lose.”

Accomplished on the gridiron as well, Castleberry was a First-Team All-District wide receiver for the Cards and the district’s Offensive Newcomer of Year in 2017. But basketball, he said, is his favorite sport. “I enjoyed football,” he said. “I played it mostly because it was fun for me.”

Castleberry is the son of Kenny and Lisa Castleberry. Both were in attendance at the signing event along with Castleberry’s younger sisters, Kimora and Cadence Castleberry.

“I’ve got to let him go but I’m happy for him,” Lisa said. “I’ve enjoyed watching him play both basketball and football. In basketball, I would say one of the best moments … was the very first time he was able to dunk a basketball - just to see the delight on his face.” That occurred, she said, one day at practice when he was junior. “He would stay in the gym and he would call me or text me. It was a special moment.”

Regarding McPherson, Lisa said, “I love the coaching staff. McPherson is also a little, small town. They love their basketball program. I think he chose McPherson out of some other offers because it feels like Melissa – you know, a small, hometown feeling.”

Said Kenny, “It’s amazing to see from where he started to where he’s going. I’m extremely proud of him. … We like that [McPherson] is well-rounded with the community and they start interning, as far as their careers, as freshmen. I think that’s one of the things that kind of brought us in. … We’re going to be going up there. They have some games in Oklahoma too.”

As for a basketball role model, Castleberry said he always liked watching Tracy McGrady, the seven-time NBA All Star who retired in 2013. His off-the-court role model is his dad. “He works hard,” Castleberry said. “He does a lot for my sisters and my mom. And he’s never given up on me. I love him for that.”

The thing Castleberry will miss most about Melissa? His classmates. “I won’t see a lot of them, moving out of state,” he said, “but it’s for a good cause.”