MOUNT CARMEL -- Last June former Mount Carmel standout and hometown legend Justin Carpenter made the decision to transfer from Southeast Missouri State back to his hometown.
Carpenter had enjoyed a successful freshman campaign as a Redhawk. Averaging 8.5 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game, Carpenter had earned a starting spot in 23 of the Redhawks' 31 games.
Despite his immediate success, Carpenter didn't exactly see eye to eye with SEMO's head coach, disagreeing with his role, primarily being used as a center. That style disagreement led to the 6-foot-9 big getting in contact with WVC assistant men's basketball coach Cornelius Walker. Talks intensified and Carpenter made the decision to return home after mulling the move for a two-week period over the summer.
"It's an obvious fit to me because [WVC] is in my hometown," Carpenter said. "But it was mainly just a happiness move on the court, I didn't see eye to eye with the head coach, that happens all the time. I had the luxury of knowing some people at Wabash and getting in contact with them, really making a decision over a two week span in the summer. I felt pretty good about it and still do."
Warriors head men's basketball coach Mike Carpenter was ecstatic when he heard the Mount Carmel native had interest in returning home and becoming a Warrior.
"It was a pleasant surprise," coach Mike Carpenter recalled. "Justin approached one of my assistants, Cornelius Walker, late in the summer, and asked if we would be interested, if he wanted to transfer. It's funny now, but I don't know why Coach Walker even felt like he needed to ask me. The answer was obviously yes. We met with Justin and asked him to discuss everything with his coaches at SEMO, before even considering transferring. He owed that to them. In the end, he decided to come here and we were elated."
It was an easy sell, Justin Carpenter had been around the college his whole life, playing pickup games there, and the staff had kept tabs on him since his sophomore year of high school. He felt as a basketball fit, he could have the opportunity to play in a more natural role back at the power forward spot and showcase his talents for a high-major school.
"Without question," coach Mike Carpenter said. "We didn't really have to sell the school or basketball program. His older brother actually played here, for Dan Sparks, in the early 2000's, and being a kid that grew up in Mt Carmel, attended games and camps at WVC, all those things were icing on the cake. It was more about - how playing at the Junior College level can benefit a DI transfer, than the fact that he was a local kid."
Returning home from SEMO after making his decision in the summer, it was bittersweet for Justin Carpenter, who enjoyed a strong career as an Ace prior to SEMO. He led Mount Carmel to its first state championship appearance in over 70 years back in 2017.
He still recalls walking from the hotel to the Civic Center in Peoria with seemingly the whole town of Mount Carmel there screaming their names and cheering them on. Just one of many great memories he holds dear from his career as an Ace.
"I got goosebumps, almost teared up," Carpenter recalled. "As a senior, seeing that in my last two games of the year, that's a feeling I'll never forget. . . . It felt good getting to people after the games, they'd say, you don't know what you did to me and my family. We haven't seen that, some of our grandparents didn't get to see that. That's something that's just real special that I'll hold close to my heart."
Now though, he'd be suiting up as a Warrior full-time at the Spencer Sports Center, instead of lacing it up as an Ace at the Hilltop.
Arriving on campus, Carpenter was initially surprised by how talented players were at the junior college level. He immediately knew it would be a challenge to him, a challenge he welcomed, however.
"I think it's really shown me -- when I came here, I thought JUCO level would be easy, but when I got here it was a slap in the face," Carpenter said. "The only difference in the levels is the size. The speed is there, the pace of the game is there, the talent level is there, it's just some people aren't in a very fortunate situation or have to do what's best for them, like I did. It really opened my eyes to a lot of different things here at the JUCO level."
Having battled ankle injuries at SEMO and previously at Mount Carmel, he would unfortunately run into further injuries. Lingering injuries plagued his campaign as a Warrior, limiting the forward to three starts. When healthy he was productive, averaging 7.8 ppg and 4 rpg. His season-high mark in scoring came against Kaskaskia back on Jan. 19 in a 91-90 victory. He contributed a 20-point, 10 rebound double-double, displaying the kind of impact he can have when healthy.
"I'd say everybody has their own injuries they go through, but I can't just get over my ankles," Justin Carpenter said. "It's something that keeps coming up. I had problems last year, problems in high school with it. But just toughing through it, everybody has injuries. Everybody can go off on a list, Marcus with his knee, everybody has injuries it's just a part of the game."
With Carpenter hampered by injuries, coach Mike Carpenter didn't feel comfortable playing him until he was 100 percent healthy, noting he didn't want to risk further injury by playing him.
"On several occasions this year, he starts looking really good, and then he would turn his ankle, and we'd have to spend the next two weeks getting him healthy," coach Mike Carpenter said. "I absolutely hate it for him, because we know he's frustrated and wants to be out there for his teammates. I don't believe in putting people out on the court unless they're able to help us. Justin has had some really good games this year, and other times, has not been 100 percent, so we haven't risked anything. Our league is too good, and it wouldn't be fair to him."
It was a pretty normal day on Feb. 22. Justin had just played two days ago in Wabash Valley College's 88-83 road victory over Olney Central College, providing a big spark for the Warriors off the bench prior to injuring his back on an awkward fall. In the days following he was feeling a little under the weather and was making the drive back from his parents house.
Rubbing his head with his off hand, he maintained his other hand on the side of the wheel, he sneezed. Many worry about what could happen when sneezing while driving -- your body's prone to jerking in an odd fashion, but that was about to become a reality for Justin Carpenter. The sneeze jerked his hand to the left, shifting his car into the grass. He tried to overcorrect to the right and that's when he slid and the accident happened.
He was taken by ambulance to Wabash General Hospital, where he was treated. Having neck pain and back pain (likely partially stemming from the injury just days prior), he was flown to St. Vincent Hospital in Evansville. Within a few hours he was released and escaped a frightening situation with no injuries, just some scratches and a little whiplash.
An outpour of support came on social media for the Mount Carmel native from people who knew him, and others who just know of him and live in Mount Carmel. He never realized just how much people supported him until he was in such a potentially dire situation.
"For sure, that was something, I never expected that level of support here in Mount Carmel," Justin Carpenter said. "I knew people were behind me no matter what, but to see it, hear it, feel it, it meant that much more to me. . . . I'm very thankful to be here. It's a scary thought, it's definitely not something everyone goes through. I think it definitely helps me feel like, I have one chance to do it, I've got one life so I'm here to do it."
Wabash Valley College's season ended on March 9 with the Warriors' 68-66 loss to Kaskaskia in the District 16 Tournament Final. A disappointing end to a fun ride for Carpenter and his teammates. Carpenter played in the final game against Kaskaskia, scoring just two points in limited action. He missed the game prior, their 86-84 victory over John A. Logan and coach Mike Carpenter harped to his players in the locker room, "We need to win this for Justin Carpenter."
Though this season ended, wrapping his year as a Warrior, it won't be the end of Justin Carpenter's career.
His initial intentions of drawing high-major Division I schools attention shifted back in December, when Justin chose to further his career at the University of Southern Indiana (Division II) in the fall. He chose USI over Lipscomb (Division I) and other schools that were interested.
"That was more of a no-brainer," Justin Carpenter said. "I could obviously wait and continue to improve my game as I do every day, get looks. I was wanting to get high-major, but I felt like through the middle of the year as if my priorities had changed and I wanted to be able to have a connection with coaching, going overseas, or getting a job in town. USI really helped me see the aspects of everything. I've got family in Evansville, it's close to town. It was just a no-brainer for me. . . . and years down the line I can see myself settling a family down [in Evansville]."
He says he developed a close relationship with USI assistant men's basketball coach Brent Owen out of high school and Owen felt like a close friend to him. That relationship played a major factor in his decision.
If he can maintain his health, Carpenter should be able to make an instant impact at USI and is fully capable of cracking the rotation. The Screaming Eagles boast a 22-8 record this year and are currently in midst the Division II National Tournament. He's excited for the opportunity and it appears to be a good fit for both parties.
"He's had a ton of bad luck, and you hate it because he's the nicest kid in the world," coach Mike Carpenter spoke of Justin. "He's done a great job of remaining positive and keeping his eye on the future. He has committed to the University of Southern Indiana and we have no doubt, he's going to get healthy, and go in there and have a big impact on their program."