Spain Park seniors head to Vanderbilt University

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After years of success in basketball, track and cross country, Spain Park High School high school student Mackenzie Culpepper heads to college on a track scholarship to Vanderbilt University.

“I am fortunate to announce that I will be continuing my academic and athletic career at Vanderbilt University,” Culpepper said in a Twitter post. “I’m so grateful to my family, coaches and friends for their continued support over the years. I hope my younger self is proud! Either way…ground yourself!

Culpepper said she found success in the sport since she started running at age 5 and found love for basketball soon after.

Her trainer recommended the track to her after she won a ‘cheetah charge’ running event at her elementary school, she said. She then saw her brother play basketball at summer camp, which sparked her love for the game, Culpepper said.

Years later, she became a well-known high school athlete who gained state and national recognition.

“It became difficult for her to choose during the summer because you could either travel for athletics or for basketball,” said Shonteria Culpepper, Mackenzie’s mother. “She started choosing basketball over track because if you didn’t keep doing AAU basketball, you didn’t improve. I think a lot of his training for athletics came from just running the basketball around the court.

Spain Park High School track and cross country coach Michael Zelwak has coached Culpepper since seventh grade. When she was in college, she was scouted by Zelwak and Spain Park women’s basketball coach Mike Chase, and both suggested she join their respective teams.

“Without a doubt, she is one of the most motivated athletes I have coached,” Zelwak said. “She doesn’t need to be told when or how to train. She is responsible and she works hard. She has that drive to do well and strive for excellence that many students her age simply don’t have and she has consistently worked towards that over the years. It helped her improve and achieve the success she had.

Zelwak said he has high hopes for Culpepper at Vanderbilt because she will have the option of majoring in athletics instead of maintaining her skills in two sports.

“I think she has a great setup at Vanderbilt,” Zelwak said. “I think the coaching staff there includes Mackenzie and I know she’s going to be close with coach Althea Thomas up there. I think they’re really going to bring out her strengths and allow her to focus on all the things that we wish she could focus on throughout high school. Mackenzie was a dual-sport athlete, so we kind of had to share it with basketball and we had to go back and forth. I don’t mean they took away her abilities, but she was just a true dual-sport athlete.

“She could excel at both and I think by allowing her the specialized attention that she’s going to get at Vanderbilt, I think she’s going to go a long way.”

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