UNC basketball brings campus ministry together after a year apart

By Sterling Sidebottom

A rush of bodies joins the players on the court, hugging each other and jumping in excitement. For the second time this season, UNC has triumphed over Duke in basketball.

As the intersection of Franklin Street and South Columbia Street fills with unmasked students just a few blocks away in downtown Chapel Hill, a different scene begins to unfold, albeit with the same excitement.

In the parking lot of the University Presbyterian Church, clusters of people are standing in groups of five to 10. Orange traffic cones block both the entrance and the exit to the church. There’s a large white screen in front of the brick wall of the building. In the center of the lot sits a projector and two speakers, all of which are humming with the excitement of the game that just ended.

Slowly, the small clumps of UNC-Chapel Hill Presbyterian Campus Ministry students wrap their arms around their pod members and begin to sing “Hark the Sound.”

It is a special moment for everyone who’s there. It is particularly special for Garrett Hubbard, a UNC-CH junior who has finally returned to his in-person community after nearly a year apart.

It’s not as fun to be alone

Hubbard spent the first half of his junior year at home in Clemmons, N.C. While home, Hubbard would watch UNC basketball games with his parents. His mom would leave the room when Carolina turned the ball over. His dad would yell at the TV or the announcers. Though different from watching with his college friends, Hubbard enjoyed this new bonding experience with his parents.

After January 18, that all changed when Hubbard returned to Chapel Hill for the spring 2021 semester. Living in an apartment by himself, Hubbard no longer had the energy of others to keep him going when the team was bad.

“Watching the games was easier earlier on with my parents,” Hubbard said. “It’s not quite as fun to just sit in your apartment alone.”

But, the team started to pick up the pace. Exhilaration and a want to cheer and share emotions took over the PCM GroupMe which began to function as a pseudo-Twitter — one where all your mutuals are also in your campus ministry.

For Hubbard, it became a place to let loose.

“I wanted to initiate conversation about the game and generate hype around it, just like I would in person,” Hubbard said.

The GroupMe got so into basketball season that they no longer have a heart emoji, the typical indication of a ‘Like’ on the app. In its place now is a basketball going through a hoop.

For Hubbard, the GroupMe that he turned to for solace this past spring has always been a way for him to connect with members of his campus ministry. In February of his freshman year, when Hubbard walked through Gate C and into the Smith Center for the first time, he was joined by two other PCM freshmen.

“I got tickets and I think I just put it in the GroupMe,” Hubbard said. “Ya know, the general, ‘If you wanna go with me, let’s go!’ I knew that everybody was into it, it felt easy.”

When not actually going to the Dean Dome, Hubbard and PCM will set up watch parties in the campus ministry’s couch room in their communal space at 110 Henderson St. Aptly named, there are four large couches in the room each filled with pillows and blankets, two of which directly face a large flat-screen TV.

Excitement, even at a distance

In a normal year, the couches and floor below would fill with familiar faces and an anticipation would envelop the room. Members would cheer for the Tar Heels, order food and talk about their days. They would build the community they already have through church services around the basketball games.

“Basketball’s great and it’s amazing to watch Carolina basketball when they’re at their best, but it’s so much better when you’re with somebody else,” Hubbard said.

That sense of community members of the campus ministry love was clearly missed by everyone this past year. As the spring semester continued to blaze ahead in Chapel Hill, and as Carolina basketball began winning games, members of PCM began to think about what the rest of the season would look like for them — a community that loves basketball as much as they love God.

“It was brought up in a Leadership Team meeting,” Reed Frellick, one of the PCM members who set up the watch party, said. “We were trying to make it feel like the community that PCM has always felt like around watch parties.”

The Presbyterian church and the parking lot PCM set their watch party up in is located on Franklin Street directly across from McCorkle Place. It’s as close to the center of action as one can get without being in the actual center.

“There’s an excitement that you get from being that close even if you’re experiencing it from a safe distance,” Hubbard said.

A miraculous moment

On the night of the Duke game, members of PCM file in. They greet each other with waves and cheers from a distance. All are wearing masks sporting UNC-CH’s logo or Carolina colors. As much as this scene takes place in a different world, there is still a sense that this is exactly what happens every other time UNC plays a basketball game.

“It felt like pre-COVID,” Lillie Chilton, a member of PCM, said. “I’ve never really been a sports fan, but the Duke game is different. The game is more about the people you watch it with.”

Pews of chairs, set up in groups according to COVID-19 pods, are facing the screen which will soon light up with the campus ministry’s Saturday night service.

“I wasn’t as into the game as much as I was in the moment of realizing that this is my last Duke game as an undergrad,” Zoey Howe, a senior member of PCM, said. “It was important to be with my people.”

For Howe, Chilton and Frellick, this moment together was special. For Hubbard, who had waited so long to be back with people and regain the sense of community that had been lost for so long, this moment was miraculous.

“It’s that weird sense of fan obsession with the team,” Hubbard said. “It was beautiful. It was cathartic. And it felt good.”

Edited by Britney Nguyen

After a rare medical condition, Taylor Bennett will rise again

By Edward Trentzsch


Loud pop music blasts down the hallway outside Taylor Bennett’s Chapel Hill apartment.

Bennett, 19, does not care about the numerous noise complaints she has received in the five months since moving in. Not one of her angry neighbors understands.

Inside the apartment, Bennett is soaked in sweat. She pushes her coffee table to one side of the living room transforming the diminutive space into a full-blown dance studio.

Bennett dances as if every movement could be her last. Her whole body shifts in fluid motion from the lightning-fast movements of her feet to the smile quickly spreading across her face.

As the music nears its grand finale, Bennett increases the intensity of her dance. She refuses to let the music leave her behind. Her rapid steps stand in stark contrast to the nightmare she lived through five years ago when she was diagnosed with a rare medical condition.

With the music still blaring, Bennett dances the night away on legs that remind her of both the past and present.


A passion for dance


Bennett grew up in Cornelius, NC, in a large house near Lake Norman. She poured her whole childhood into gymnastics until a friend invited her to a dance camp when she was 8.

Every camper wore bright costumes and danced with the type of freedom only a child could muster. Bennett became hooked.

After returning home, she quit gymnastics and never looked back.

“I had never danced before in my life, but I immediately fell in love with it,” Bennett said.

Dancing took on greater importance as Bennett grew older. At the age of 14, she averaged around 20 hours of practice each week.

One day while practicing for an upcoming competition, Bennett felt a sharp pain burning in the side of her neck while attempting a roll.

“It must just be some kind of muscle strain,” she thought. Certainly nothing to spend too much time worrying over.

Doctors ordered her into a neck brace as a precaution. Not one to be deterred, Bennett wore the neck brace at the dance competition where she competed in all of her routines despite the bulky constraints jutting out of her neck.

It was the last time she would dance for two years.


Mysterious stiffness


Bennett’s neck pain persisted throughout the next few days.

Her parents tried everything in hopes of relieving the mysterious stiffness, whether it was with heating pads, professional massages or muscle relaxers. Two weeks after returning to school, her arm went numb and turned a bright shade of purple. She could not move it.

“Honestly, I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’,” Bennett said. “You don’t know what is happening, so I just brushed it off hoping my limbs would work again.”

The numbness in Bennett’s body bounced around between her arms and legs. Ignoring the issue was no longer an option.

The Bennett family visited doctors hoping to pinpoint what was happening to Taylor. She underwent nearly 50 tests looking to identify any rheumatoid diseases, three CT scans and multiple MRIs searching for brain tumors.

Still, nothing could be found.

“I think I lost 20 pounds over stress,” Julie Bennett, Taylor’s mom, said. “It was the scariest and most horrible thing we have ever been through.”

After three months, doctors diagnosed Bennett with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a rare limb pain developed after injury.

To cope with the stress of her neck injury, Bennett’s brain overreacted and shut down the rest of her body. CRPS affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States per year and is not curable.


“It was hard not having control over my life”


Bennett spent most of the next year alternating between using a wheelchair and crutches.

She did not attend class for the remainder of eighth grade and endured physical therapy every day during the week. A few months ago, she had been jumping for joy on the dance floor. Now, she needed her mom’s help to brush her teeth.

“It was embarrassing,” Bennett said. “I couldn’t do anything on my own, and it was hard not having control over my life.”

Even after returning to school for her freshman year of high school, challenges remained.

When arriving in physics class, Bennett took her seat like she did every day. When the class ended and all her friends got up, Bennett remained. She could not move her legs, and her parents were called to bring her a wheelchair.

Bennett’s legs were both purple that day, but the only color she remembers is the red flush across her face as her friend helped her down the hall.

“She was at other people’s mercy and that definitely took a toll on her,” Madeleine Calcagno, a childhood friend of Bennett’s, said.

The cycles of immobility gradually grew better over time as Bennett’s body became more receptive to her medication. She entered remission at the end of her freshman year of high school and has not had a serious flare-up since the day in physics class.

When the disease first manifested two years ago, Bennett spent months waiting on a diagnosis while her body slipped away, making a difficult situation even worse.

Something needed to be done.


Determined to live life in motion


With the help of her family, Bennett started a nonprofit focused on giving families battling with CRPS a source of reliable information.

The nonprofit, CRPS Kids Foundation, raised $20,000 over three years.

When Taylor graduated high school, she decided to merge her nonprofit with Fight the Flame, another nonprofit in Charlotte raising awareness and money for CRPS. She sits on the company’s board of directors with her father.

“What I went through was really scary and I don’t want people to ever go through the same thing,” Bennett said.

Bennett is now a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill hoping to major in business and journalism. She still loves to dance, and her past experiences have changed her into a person determined to live life in motion.

“I have no doubt she will find success in anything she takes on,” Lex Casciano, a college friend of Bennett’s, said.

As the music in her apartment fades away, Bennett takes a seat on her couch. She does not know if her legs will allow her to get back up. Either way, she will rise again.


Edited by Britney Nguyen