The atmosphere surrounding high school sports is not heading in the right direction.
Far too many parents, grandparents, students and just ordinary fans are focused on the wrong things. It has become more about how much their kid scores, or if their team wins. The venom directed toward officials and opponents has also reached an all-time high.
Then comes a student/athlete like Clinton’s Kendell Arndt whose story helps snap fans out of that troubling perspective, while also reminding us about the power of perseverance and how beautiful it is when someone merely plays for the love of the game.
Arndt, a senior, has overcome major birth defects to become a successful student and key contributor on Clinton’s varsity basketball team. Those birth defects left Kendell with half of her right arm and only a normal-sized thumb on her left hand. She also had clubfoot and her right leg is 1½ inches shorter than her left. Kendell underwent numerous surgeries on her foot during her infancy, plus several others when she was four to help repair webbed fingers.
It can be initially devastating for any parent to know that your child will face many tough challenges to overcome a disability. However, it didn’t take long for Kendell to prove to her parents and others that nothing was going to slow her down.
“(I knew) from the time she was a year old,” Nicole Arndt said of realizing that her daughter would be just fine. “Not having two hands, you wonder? I’d give her cookies and she’d stuff them under her neck, armpit or wherever she could find a place. She never let having one arm get in the way of anything. It’s all she ever has known.”
Kendell had multiple prosthetics from the time she was nine months old, but refused to wear them. She just felt more comfortable without them and didn’t want to draw any extra attention. Being able to accomplish day-to-day tasks with those obstacles is one thing. Being able to become a varsity athlete and compete against some of the best female athletes in the area, is quite another.
Kendell started out playing soccer, because that was one sport that you didn’t use your hands. She stayed with soccer from the youth level and made it all the way to the junior varsity team during her freshman year. However, her elementary school gym teacher Tom Trevisani encouraged her to try basketball, and in fourth grade, Kendell gave competitive basketball a try and was immediately hooked on the sport. She played on travel teams and on to modified. Then during her sophomore year, Kendell gave up soccer and put all of her focus into basketball.
Another challenge Kendell had to overcome is height, as she stands at just 4’10”. But her tremendous work ethic and ability to adapt made it easier for her to improve and thrive while earning time at the varsity level.
“When I first watched her play,” Nicole said. “I said ‘oh, she can do this.’”
Loving a sport and becoming skilled enough to compete against some of the better athletes in the area are two different things. So, Kendell and her father spent countless hours practicing on their driveway. Jason Arndt, who played high school basketball for Sauquoit Valley, knows the game and pushed Kendell through times when doubt was creeping into her mind. But, no matter how much time and support a parent or coach is willing to put in with an athlete, it comes down to the inner desire of the athlete.
“I told her she’s has to work twice as hard as everyone else,” Jason Arndt said, who coached at the youth level, two years of modified basketball and two years at the junior varsity level at Clinton.
“We had some battles, but she did it. Everything with her was … if you told her no, she was going to figure out how to do it. With dribbling and ball handling, we worked on it, I tried to give her ideas, but she’s a worker and always worked hard and did everything she could do to stay with the kids she’s playing against.”
Working on dribbling, shooting, passing and defense certainly wasn’t easy, but with her father’s guidance and support, Kendell found ways around, over or through any obstacle.
“There were a lot of times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to play because I was struggling with something and he helped me believe that I can do it,” said Kendell, who works at Lutheran Home and plans on studying Veterinarian Science at SUNY Canton in the fall.
“It takes more practice and more thinking for me to make it work. In basketball, I have to say ‘how can this work for me?’ I don’t learn it like everyone else does. I feel like everyone else, I just have to work a little harder to get there. I can do anything that people with two arms can do.”
Kendell has gone from a girl who initially thought she couldn’t do certain things, to one that has inspired anyone who has had the privilege of watching her compete on the hardwood. She hasn’t had the opportunity to meet any kids with the same challenges she’s faced, but has advice for those wondering if they can overcome a setback or disability.
“I would tell them you could do anything if you put your mind to it,” Kendell said. “I thought I couldn’t play basketball because I thought you would need two hands, but you can always find ways to work around it and make it work for you.”
That positive attitude can be attributed to Kendell’s parents not treating her any differently than her sister, Taylor, who is 13.
“She can do most anything people with two hands can do,” Jason said. “We never made a big deal about it … and neither did she. The thing she hates most is that it’s difficult to quickly tie her hair or shoes. It takes her time. I mean, she’s been born with it, she never wanted to make it an issue and we never did. Once in a while she’d get in a mood that she couldn’t do things, but not often. I’ve always pushed her because I knew she could do it.”
Kendell earned every minute she gets on the floor with her all-around knowledge of the game and ability to make teammates better.
“I told her that it’s all the little things that matter in basketball,” Jason said. “When people start seeing you do all the little things, it becomes a big thing. Let other people worry about points. Other things are just as important.”
On the court, Kendell had career highs of 15 in junior varsity and eight during her varsity career. She was brought up to the varsity team during her sophomore season and started there as a junior, before going back down to junior varsity due getting more playing time and a shortage of numbers at that level.
Most parents are nervous during their child’s first game at new levels. The Arndt’s were no different.
“Her mom gets more nervous,” Jason said. “But, I was a little nervous just to see how much they would take advantage of her height or disability. To be honest, (Kendell) is smart, she knows when someone was able to take advantage of her and she’d correct it. Her first varsity game, she was really nervous. But she just went out there and did her thing.”
While she never was a big scorer, Kendell’s ability to play an all-around game made her a key member for the Warriors and first-year varsity coach Chico Pendrak, who has coached for over 30 years at every level.
“She was one of our better shooters,” said Pendrak, who coached AAU, travel teams, club teams and school ball. “She would catch everything … she has great feet, really quick, and with her father being a coach, her basketball IQ was very good. She’s a pretty amazing and inspirational girl.”
The impact Kendell made off the court also became evident quickly to Pendrak.
“She has worked really hard and is just an inspiration,” Pendrak said. “You shake your head at the things she can do. She never asked for special help, but teammates would be right over there to help her out when they felt she needed it. Opposing coaches and parents thought it was so inspirational. They would always compliment her. How could you not?”
Positive acknowledgements from others became a common theme for Kendell and her parents.
“Every game I have one parent, one coach or one referee tell me that they are amazed by her,” Nicole said. “Or they ask ‘how does she do that?’ She’s amazing every day. Don’t tell her she can’t do it. If you tell her she can’t do something, she will figure out a way. She just manages, nothing holds her back.”
“I had other coaches pull me off the court and give me props,” Kendell said. “And when we shake hands at the end of the game, girls slap me on the back to show they appreciate me.”
We all should appreciate Kendell Arndt.