Making future stars: Youth Development Initiative expands

As the clock hits zero, fifth grader Rory Pruitt can’t believe it. In a gymnasium filled with friends and family, the Johnnie Lay Burks Elementary boys basketball team has done it. Going undefeated across the 12-game season, the Treefrogs are now the second boys’ team to win the Clarke County School District Elementary Basketball Championship.

“It feels great. After going 1-5 last season, we made the playoffs and were undefeated,” Pruitt said. “I play with these guys in AAU (Amateur Athletic Union). It’s really cool to be able to play in school with them.”

The Treefrogs dominated the entire game, out-matching the Howard B. Stroud Stars on all sides of the ball, winning 36-23. Coached by Johnnie Lay Burks community school organizer Omar Reid, the team is made up of fourth and fifth graders, including Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz’s son Noah.

“He (Noah) has become even more committed to the team, and there’s a great coaching staff. Omar and the other coaches are wonderful. They have made this team more cohesive and more conscious of the whole court. A lot of the same guys were on the team a year ago, and they have advanced so much in just 12 short months,” Girtz said.

Girtz was one of 1,000 fans in attendance, packing Clarke Central High School’s Terra Gladiatorum full. Alongside Cedar Shoals’ Turner-Neathery Gymnasium, a total of six playoff matches were held in the two high school arenas. Each game was free for Clarke County students, teachers and senior citizens.

“I think the spirit of this great town that we love so much is that we care for each other. We take care of each other and we show up,” Girtz said.

For Reid, the unwavering support was a testament to the CCSD community.

“We just packed a high school gym with community members, teachers, families, parents, aunties and grandparents. Three generations of families were here to support our kids, and that’s the bigger picture — bringing everybody together,” Reid said.

TEAM TALK: Johnnie Lay Burks Elementary head coach Omar Reid talks with his team during the 2023-24 Clarke County Elementary Basketball Championship game. Reid began coaching the Treefrogs in 2021, and saw growth in his players throughout the season. “The development is unbelievable. To see kids understand, work hard and come together as a team, that is amazing. Coaches and teachers are building relationships with students inside and outside of the classroom,” Reid said. Photo by Ethan Greene.

Both teams are part of a county-wide Youth Development Initiative, which focuses on increasing and expanding access to opportunities for Athens-Clarke County youth.

Run by Clarke Central Co-Athletic Director Chris Hulse, the program was founded in 2021 as the brainchild of Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals’ Athletic Directors Jon Ward and L’Dreco Thomas. 

“The conversation started with how young women in Athens-Clarke County are priced out of volleyball until seventh grade — unless your family can afford club volleyball,” Hulse said. “It’s similar to club soccer and travel baseball, but unlike those sports, there aren’t recreational volleyball leagues. Young women in this community could not play volleyball, barring thousands of dollars, until seventh grade.” 

The program unofficially started with basketball and soccer when elementary leagues were formed in 2021. The leagues merged and became a part of the initiative in 2022. 11 out of the 14 CCSD elementary schools participated in basketball for the 2023-24 school year, with plans to create teams in each school.

“It’s all about getting our youth involved. The earlier we can target those kids and get them involved, the better,” Thomas said. 

The initiative expands beyond the playing field, with the University of Georgia providing tutors from the Mary Frances Early College of Education. Athletes meet with tutors either before or after practice, helping balance their classwork.

“The main thing is that we’re giving our kids even more support. Now when they get here (to high school) we don’t lose kids because they don’t do their schoolwork,” Thomas said.

For Thomas, his daughter’s participation in the youth soccer program has led her to become a well-rounded student-athlete. 

“It was different for me, being a basketball coach, but it was exciting to watch. She has really developed a love for soccer,” Thomas said. “I think it’s made her a better student. She takes pride in being an honor-roll student and knows that if she doesn’t do well in school, she can’t play sports.” 

KID COMMUNITY: Barnett Shoals and Gaines Elementary School soccer players run to the ball during a game. With backing from the Athens-Clarke County government and the University of Georgia Athletic Association, the youth program includes inter-elementary leagues for soccer and basketball. “The program is demonstrating to these young folks how important teamwork is and how to bond and support each other. We’re previewing decades of future success for the entire community: around economic development, employment and community spirit,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said. Photo by Isabella Morgan.

All students are required to maintain satisfactory academic and behavioral standing in order to play sports. As a result, Reid has noticed improvement in both his team and the classroom.

“We’re seeing kids’ behavior improve. They have a belief of being a part of something special, knowing that they’re being loved and knowing that they can love back,” Reid said. “Coaches and teachers are building relationships with students inside and outside of the classroom. That right there is what makes it so important. It makes being a teacher easier when you have that relationship.” 

For the 2023-24 school year, the program expanded by introducing the Jaguar and Gladiator youth football programs. The teams compete in the North Georgia Youth Football Association, a regional league that features similar youth programs in the area. 

“With the Jaguar and Gladiator youth football program, they’re already wearing those uniforms, so they will walk onto campus with pride in their school,” Hulse said. 

To inspire future Jags, Cedar Shoals held a youth football night during their home game against Walnut Grove last season. The youth teams were honored pregame and experienced what a high school football game looks like. The same was done with basketball, where Thomas and the program honored each elementary and middle school team at halftime. 

“We want the kids to understand that they may not be Jaguars now, but they will be soon. We’re trying to get that pride back on both sides of town,” Thomas said. “It’s going to foster more school spirit. We want people to take pride in being a Jaguar no matter what sport it is, and we want the people to come out and support.”

In the future, Hulse also plans to develop host sites and volunteers for volleyball and softball weekend camps, as well as a summer swim program, with the idea of expanding to a full league in the future.

“I’m hoping we can expand to a summer swim program where kids are wearing swim caps with the Central ‘C’ or a paw print or Jaguar head or whatever. When the winter comes, Coach Johnson at Central and Coach Powell at Cedar might see their numbers explode because kids got a chance to participate in something,” Hulse said. “The amount of kids who can’t swim might be more than we realize, so with the program, even if it’s just swim lessons, we might even save somebody’s life.” 

However, the real effects of the initiative will be shown down the line.

“Take girls’ basketball for example. There are about 30 girls in Cedar’s program (varsity and junior varsity). Now imagine how many there could be if there were 15 girls from each of the seven elementary schools that feed into Cedar. Without the initiative, some of those girls would never wear a Cedar Shoals Jaguar uniform; they weren’t going to get that experience. Now they can,” Hulse said. “You never know, one of these kids that never would have tried it plays in elementary school, and it turns out she loves it and is the next great thing. You never know which kid in our community rides that sport to college, but even if they don’t, they get to be a part of something special here in Clarke County.”

As young athletes gain crucial experience on the court, field or pool, they also learn to balance their performance in school. While the project expands, the Clarke County community develops the youth in more ways than one.

“Sports have a unique way of healing and unifying the world. When things are going bad in our world, we can always turn to sports to bring people together. When you bring it down to the youth level, you watch them come together and you teach them about commitment, sacrifice, perseverance and more. They grow and build a very strong foundation,” Reid said.

Ethan Greene

Senior Ethan Greene is the Sports editor for Cedar BluePrints this year. He runs an Instagram photography account, attends car races, and writes about sports for BluePrints. He enjoys being able to work alongside his friends and the opportunity to get a more thorough analysis of sports.

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