Monday, April 22, 2024

Young athletes in Leavenworth find joy and skills on the basketball court

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LEAVENWORTH - On a recent Tuesday afternoon in the Peshastin Dryden Elementary gym, volunteer coach and dad, Nate Melody, and ten first and second-grade girls had a pretty smooth routine down for their 75-minute-long basketball practice. They were a few practices into this new development program, and the participants showed a growing confidence controlling their ball.

Warm-ups included grapevines, lunges, and jumping jacks with basketball raised above their heads. When someone suggested they do them backward, Melody said, “Sure, I’ve never heard of that, but let’s do them backward!” After watching the girls complete the challenge, he said he’d have his other team, sixth-grade boys, also do them.

Dribbling practice was with the right hand and then the left hand. “You need to be equally good with both hands,” Melody said, explaining that this will help them immensely. 

Ball handling is tricky. The girls wriggled a little as they coaxed balls to circle around their bodies, swapping them from hand to hand. They wore satisfied smiles when they felt more control through the fingertips of their outstretched hands.

During the interval when the participants could practice shooting, they set about it with eagerness, taking turns and frequently getting the ball to drop through the net. They hovered around the two hoops that had been lowered to about seven feet high, the ideal height for learning to shoot in first and second grade.

The practice ended with relays. Melody considers relays as a way to appeal to kids’ desire for competition while being sensitive to the varying levels of ability and keeping it fun. Divided into two teams, girls dribbled as fast as they could around a series of cones before tagging a teammate. For one relay, athletes had to touch each cone they passed while continuing to dribble with their other hand. In another relay, they had to switch dribbling hands at each cone.

Melody praised their focus, saying, “I love the thinking that is going on; this is basketball!”

Leavenworth’s Youth Basketball program is having a heyday. Not only are parents like Melody introducing the fundamentals to younger athletes, but there are also many rec league teams, making basketball accessible, fun, and local. And there’s a burgeoning number of AAU teams too—this year, seven teams based in Leavenworth—for those ready for longer seasons, advanced tactics, and wider travel. 

Similar to the program Melody is getting off the ground, Micah and Amy Rieke did the same seven years ago, starting “Little Dribblers” for first graders, including their daughter, Lola, who is now an eighth grader. The Riekes have been deeply involved ever since. Micah Rieke currently coaches two AAU teams, eighth-grade girls and sixth-grade girls; their other daughter is sixth-grader Violet. 

Amy Rieke has taken on the role of program director, coordinating the logistics for all the rec and AAU teams, including updating the website, scheduling gyms for playing time, and registering teams for tournaments. The Riekes recognize that they are just two of the many people involved. “Volunteers are making this work at every level,” said Amy Rieke.

The Rec League runs from October to December, while AAU can be run year-round. In Leavenworth, with a nod to the importance of other sports and activities, the AAU program has been starting in late October and finishing in mid-March. The middle schoolers mostly play on their school team as well while competing with AAU at weekend tournaments. 

The consistency of having AAU teams, made up of roughly the same kids year after year, is leading to strong showings in the region and beyond. Ten tournaments, most of which are multi-day, pack the AAU schedule. Last year, the two teams coached by Micah Rieke played about 50 games each. Not surprisingly, the sixth and eighth-grade girls’ teams have both qualified for state this year by coming in first or second in a tournament.

About the sixth-grade team, Micah Rieke said, “This is a pivotal year. They are starting to play together more, and they’re thinking more.”

The eighth-grade girls are dominating because they’ve qualified with four firsts at tournaments held on the east and west side of the Cascades. The eight girls on that team have been, for the most part, playing together for five years. With only eight, they each get lots of game time. They make up the entirety of the A team at Icicle River Middle School. “They can all play all positions—guard, post, wing—and they have the skills—dribbling, shooting and passing,” said Micah Rieke.

Eighth-grade teammate Rylie Songer does other sports but loves basketball because, as she said, “It’s competitive and also there’s formality with rules. It’s a fast-paced game.” She also spoke of the strong friendship with her teammates and how that gives them an edge. “We’re close knit. You have to know what each other’s thinking and know where you’re supposed to be. We know each other’s strengths and play to that.”

They’ve built up stamina too. Teams play four to six games in a tournament, which is a lot of sprinting, bounding, and maneuvering action over two to three days. Tournaments demand the team to communicate and problem-solve because they’re encountering new teams whose actions cannot be predicted.

Commitment of the families to the sport is essential. “AAU families are dedicated to follow their athlete’s passion,” said Micah Rieke.

“We get to spend a lot of time together,” Parent Jaime Songer said about going to practices and tournaments with Rylie. “That’s time to listen to your kid. We also get to meet her peers’ parents. The team is like a family. We look out for each other.”

AAU culminates in a three-day State tournament in Spokane in mid-March. This will be the eighth graders’ second year going. Last year, they surprised themselves by finishing well in fourth. This year is looking even more promising. “We have a lot of confidence,” Rylie Songer said. “We are strong offensively with great shooters and drivers, and this year our defense has improved.” 

At a recent middle school game, these athletes were clearly in their element, diving for the ball, forcing turnovers, passing swiftly to each other, and making the most of windows for clear shots. In the breaks between quarters, part of their fan base, elementary girls, swarmed the court to pass and shoot.

It’s clear that Upper Valley kids are fortunate for this basketball program (and other sports programs) that begins with a foundation of fun, teamwork, and play and grows success that incorporates skill, grit, and shared joy on the court.

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