By Nate Thompson
Not to him, not to his coach, not to his family.
Because in his mind, he plays about five or six inches taller than his official height of 5-foot-7.
“I don’t know if I try to play any differently out there,” Carlson said. “I mean, I’ve always been this size my whole life. So I’ve always tried to adjust myself to the way the game is going, or how teams are guarding me.
“Really, when I start playing, I don’t feel any shorter than anyone else out there. I think I can do the same things as almost anyone else.”
Actually, Carlson has accomplished a lot more than most players he’ll compete against, thanks to an unwavering dedication he’s shown to the game. A four-year varsity player for the Eagles, Carlson topped the 1,000-point mark for his career during a non-conference victory over neighboring rival Sparta, when he scored 18 points.
Always known for his outstanding outside shooting, Carlson has done little to dispel that strength this season, averaging a stellar 23.1 points per game. But he also takes pride in being the Eagles’ playmaker and getting his teammates involved as well.
He’s averaging four assists, and just over two steals and nearly three rebounds per game for a Kent City squad that sits at 10-7 overall, and tied Morley Stanwood for the CSAA Silver Division championship.
Carlson credits his sweet shooting stroke to his family, including his dad, Gus Carlson, who coached him throughout his childhood, and his three brothers, who have battled him in countless back yard 1-on-1 battles and shooting competitions. He adds that his most loyal support off the court comes from his mom, Jenny.
Carlson has had the unique opportunity to be teammates with two of his brothers. Zack Carlson was a senior when Eli was a freshman on varsity. And now, in Eli’s final season at Kent City, younger brother Hayden is a reserve guard as a sophomore. The baby of the family, Tanner, is in seventh grade.
“My dad has probably been my biggest influence, just because he’s been my coach my entire life,” Carlson said. “He played at Grant. He was a really good shooter in high school, probably better than me. You could ask a lot of guys on our team about my dad because he’s helped a lot of them with their shooting, too.”
“There’s not many days that go by when you won’t find someone from their family in the gym,” added Kent City head coach Dave Ingles. “The way they have supported Eli throughout his time here has just been fantastic. Every opportunity Eli gets to make himself better, he’s made the most of it.”
Carlson was in eighth grade during Ingles’ first season at Kent City, and the new coach noticed right away his uncanny ability to put the ball in the basket, especially from long distance.
Still, at the beginning of the next season, Ingles admitted he was hesitant to bring Carlson up to varsity because “he was so small.”
How small? Maybe 130 pounds soaking wet.
“That freshman year, he started on JV and after about four games, I told myself, ‘You know what? We need him up here.’ People laughed at first, just because they saw this small kid up on varsity, but after they watched him play, they recognized pretty quickly he belonged.”
While Carlson couldn’t change his height, he did change his body tone.
“When I was in eighth grade, I had a goal to make varsity that next season and my dad said, ‘If you want to do that, you gotta get in the weight room,’” Carlson recalled. “When I was about 14 or 15, I started taking lifting seriously. And I’ve continued working out as much as possible throughout high school.”
With his gains in weight and strength, Ingles noted an improvement in Carlson’s game. Suddenly he was absorbing contact on drives to the rim and finishing strong. He was no longer strictly a spot-up shooter.
“That first year, I just tried to get open and shoot,” Carlson said. “That’s all I did.”
A chiseled physique also gave Carlson the confidence to venture into varsity football for the first time last fall. Despite joining the Eagles’ varsity just a few days before the start of preseason camp, Carlson earned the starting quarterback position and guided the Eagles to a 7-4 record, which included an opening-round victory in the Division 7 playoffs.
“My biggest thing is I’ve always enjoyed playing football with my friends and being around them,” he said. “I played back in eighth grade, but I got hurt, and had to miss some of my basketball season, so that shied me away. Basketball has always been my favorite sport.”
After the football season was over, Carlson said he wished he would have played all four years.
But much more lies ahead for him on the basketball court. Thanks to the progression of his all-around game, both at Kent City and on the AAU circuit, more college coaches began taking notice. Carlson is currently debating between scholarship offers from Cornerstone College, Aquinas College and Grace Christian University.
“I think I’ll have a decision in the next week or so,” he said. “I’m still talking to a couple coaches to see what they can offer. It’s something I’ve worked for my entire life, so it’s really exciting.”
All that’s left is to guide Kent City to a district championship, a goal that has eluded Carlson throughout his varsity career.
He has experienced a perfect regular season. The Eagles went 20-0 in 2017-18, when he was a sophomore. Unfortunately the dream season ended in the first game of districts, when the Eagles were upset by North Muskegon.
“That team was so close, just the family bond we had with Coach Ingles,” Carlson said. “We had such an amazing chemistry. Everyone knew where everyone else was supposed to be on the court. We just played the game with extreme confidence. It was just a really fun season.”