Wesleyan’s Stevens signs with Belmont Abbey
J.T. Stevens has always enjoyed working hard. So, when faced with playing for one of the top soccer programs in the area, he embraced the challenges.
It certainly wasn't easy, and it definitely took adjusting. But he kept focused on what mattered most to him. And now, Stevens, a standout at Wesleyan Christian, has signed with NCAA Division II Belmont Abbey College to continue his playing career.
“It feels amazing. I've been waiting for this moment for a really long time. Now that it's here I guess I'm still in shock,” he says. “I was thinking about it this morning. I woke up and was like, 'This isn't something that happens every day.' You have to work really hard to get where you are. I was just proud of myself for putting in all the work.”
Stevens, the son of Jennie Stevens-Cheng and the late Nathaniel Wayne Stevens and stepson of Ivan Cheng, played a lot of basketball when he was much younger. But after his mother remarried while he was in middle school, his focus started to shift.
His stepdad played soccer growing up, and his interest rubbed off on Stevens. So, he started playing soccer at Archdale-Trinity Middle, and he caught the attention of Trinity High coach Mike Sink, who asked him to play on his Challenge team.
He contributed well on that team, which included many older players. That experience, coupled with an injury playing basketball, helped steer him toward taking soccer more seriously. So, he picked up playing travel soccer with the PTFC '95 Black and focused more on training.
“Something I was taught when I was younger was: If you have the capability to do something, then you do it to the best of your ability,” he says. “I just found pleasure in playing soccer. ... Just training and working at it is fun to me. Getting better, working harder and becoming better as a person through physical activity builds character.”
He practiced hard on his own, doing endless juggling and dribbling drills. And after two years at Wheatmore, he transferred to Wesleyan. But on a team that would win its second straight NCISAA 3A state title and earn a No. 3 national ranking that year, his minutes dropped.
He was frustrated with his playing. But, with some advice from coach Scott Reitnour, he didn't let it derail him.
“Coach Reitnour really opened my eyes to how I could use it as a way to worship, playing for God and really offering it to Him,” he says. “When I came here, it wasn't about soccer anymore. It was about using soccer as a tool to reach out to others and to worship God. It wasn't about how good I was anymore. It was more about fun and worship.”
His senior season went much better as he became a starter at winger, despite playing with a groin injury much of the year. He helped the Trojans go 18-4-2 for the season, compete among the top teams in the PACIS and reach the state semifinals.
“J.T. has been a great servant here within our program,” Reitnour says. “Just a guy who'd make sure the bus is clean when we'd get back, pick up the sweaty pinnies, pick up whatever role he was given in a game or practice session. He's a brilliant kid, as well. I've really enjoyed having him in my philosophy class. He's a thinker.”
In looking at colleges, Stevens also considered schools including Barton and N.C. Wesleyan. But, particularly after receiving the Saint Thomas More Scholarship, he decided that he wanted to attend Belmont Abbey and join the Crusaders’ soccer program.
“The coach (John Keating) is very much like Coach Reitnour. So, if I develop as much as I did here, I can only get better if I follow suit in the same program,” says Stevens, who wants to study biology. “And Christianity plays an important role in my life, and I feel I'd grow the best spiritually at Belmont Abbey, as well as receive a great soccer and academic education.”