PITTSBORO — With this year’s NBA Finals out of the way, Pittsboro had the stage to itself last week for its own version of an action-packed basketball competition.
In a selection of tournaments that could rival NCAA’s March Madness, the attendees of the Northwood Sports Camp — held at Northwood High School from June 20-23 — were tossed onto teams that competed in brackets, dependent on their age group, to determine each tournament’s champion.
However, scrimmage tournaments were just one aspect of the four-day co-ed camp, which offered sessions for both basketball and football for children aged 6-13.
Students could choose to participate solely in the basketball or football portion of the camp, or channel their inner multi-sport athlete and sign up for both.
In total, the camp saw nearly 120 attendees from Chatham and beyond.
“We had over 100 kids there, ranging from kindergarten all the way to 8th grade, so we had quite a lot,” Kerri Snipes, Northwood’s head women’s basketball coach and one of the camp’s primary counselors, told the News + Record. “They were wide open and had a lot of energy, but I think overall, they had a blast.”
This was the first Northwood youth summer camp for Chris Kenan, the school’s newly hired head football coach, and from his perspective, it couldn’t have gone more smoothly.
“It went extremely well. The kids were burning energy and excitement every day and I know our kids, as a football team, really enjoyed (being volunteers),” Kenan said. “We had some good competition going and we were able to instill some fundamentals and have fun doing so.”
Kenan is no stranger to leading youth summer camps. Before being hired at Northwood in January, he came from Neal Magnet Middle School in Durham, where, as the school’s head football coach, he helped create a successful four-week summer camp centered around both athletics and academics.
“We were just trying to bridge the gaps over the summer because kids were losing so much academically and athletically by being at home,” he said. “We called it the Extra Effort Camp, with guys coming in during the summer to put in extra effort and trying to gain ground on the EOGs. Some of the academic growth at the middle school was through that camp.”
Northwood’s Sports Camp, with it being split between two sports, would feature a 2 ½-hour morning session of either football or basketball, depending on the student’s chosen sport, starting at 9:30 a.m. Football was never played in the afternoon in an effort to stay indoors during the hottest hours of the day. Then, there’d be an hour for lunch around noon, another hour of skill sessions around 1 p.m. and two hours of “camp games,” namely the basketball tournaments, from 2-4 p.m. before dismissal.
For football, those skill sessions would mix in the fundamentals of defense, agility training, route-running and pass-catching, among others, divvied up between camp days. A staple of every session, however, was one of Kenan’s biggest emphases: footwork.
“Everything starts at the bottom, including your house, so we wanted to instill some footwork foundation,” Kenan said. “We started every day with some footwork. After stretching, after warming up, we started there.”
Kenan said that the football camp was split into three age groups: the 6-8-year olds, 9-10-year olds and 11-13-year olds, with different drills having different looks depending on the age group. For example, while the 11-13-year-olds had an off-the-ground agility ladder for their footwork drills, the 6-8-year-olds had a ladder on the ground that presented “very little risk of falling,” said Kenan.
In a county void of school-sanctioned middle school football — besides organizations like the East Chatham Chargers, which now has 12U teams in both Pittsboro and Siler City — Kenan said he was impressed with the amount of young athletes that came out to partake in the football side of the camp, going as far as to say the football players may have made up the camp’s majority.
“After hearing about how much (Pittboro) is a basketball and baseball town, it’s good to see so many kids come out for football,” Kenan said. “The young kids were really excited. I’d say it was a 50-50 split, maybe 60-40 for the kids going out for football (compared to basketball). It was very heartwarming to know that kids want the opportunity to play football in Chatham. … I just love to see it.”
On the basketball side of things, led by Snipes and Northwood men’s basketball head coach Matt Brown, along with a selection of current Chargers players, the excitement level was through the roof.
Just like the football portion, basketball skill sessions gave attendees a taste of the game’s most necessary fundamentals: passing, dribbling, shooting and defending, with drills and stations divided up between age groups.
Snipes said that while the camp’s attendees were the ones there to learn, her players getting the opportunity to take over coaching roles as the camp’s volunteer counselors helped to develop a sense of leadership amongst her fairly youthful core.
“Being able to teach and lead others was a great experience for a lot of them, just having to flip to the role of being the teacher,” Snipes said. “They had to be creative, too. We didn’t give them step-by-step what to do each time when they had groups coming to their stations, so they were just being creative and thinking of different things that they may not work on all the time.”
While getting insight on the game from Northwood coaches and players was exciting enough for the campers, the school’s athletic director, Cameron Vernon, decided to turn it up a notch, bringing in a special guest on the camp’s first day: Tyler Zeller, UNC basketball national champion and former NBA journeyman.
Zeller played four seasons for UNC from 2008-12, winning a national championship in 2009. He also spent eight seasons in the NBA, with his most notable stint coming for the Boston Celtics from 2014-17.
Perhaps most notable, though, is his 7-foot frame.
“Just being able to see his height and wingspan really blew them away,” Snipes said with a laugh. “He just talked about his career from UNC all the way to the NBA, and then answered any questions they had, which was a lot with over 100 campers. I think what was the coolest for the campers was hearing who he had played with or who he’d played against in the NBA, just naming off those players that are still currently playing that they’re familiar with.
“He was very kind and took pictures with each of the campers and they got to take those home to keep and remember camp,” she added. “That was a really neat experience for a lot of them who may not have ever been around any sort of professional athlete before.”
But the highlight of the camp for many, of course, was the basketball tournament.
After the first day, which the counselors used to determine each player’s skill level, the campers were split into evenly matched teams, with the younger campers being divided into NCAA-themed teams with names like Louisville, Wake Forest and Boston College and the older campers participating in an NBA-themed playoff with teams names like the Celtics and Warriors.
“A lot of campers are competitive by nature, which is great, so they got to see it displayed on a bracket and kind of go from there,” Snipes said. “They really enjoyed and got a lot out of the skill development aspect (of camp), but of course, like any other player, they love being able to play the game.”
Getting to play on Northwood’s gym floor — and spend four days immersed in the school’s athletic culture — was a special treat for a lot of the younger kids, who Snipes said she hopes grows into a solid group of future Chargers.
And one day, those same campers may have the opportunity to end up like Snipes’ current crop of players: reigning 3A state champions.
“It kind of gives them a taste of what its like at the high school level at Northwood,” Snipes said. “It’s really neat because I can remember a couple of these players that just came to this Asheville camp [for the women’s basketball team] that are rising 9th graders and they’ve been coming to (the sports camp) for five-plus years and this time, they were getting to be on the other side. They were no longer a camper, they were getting to help and lead.
“Just being able to see that growth and build a sense of community, which I can certainly attest that the Pittsboro community has been phenomenal,” she added. “It’s a good way to bring together the community and showcase Northwood so they can get a feel for what it’ll be like for them in the future.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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