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Changing the way kids play

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As select teams become more prevalent, 'paradigm shift' emerging on local sports scene

By John Herndon

Editor's note: This story is part one of a three-part series titled "Have game, will travel."

They come in all shapes and sizes. Some start young, others wait a while. Most are expensive and require a high level of commitment from a good number of people.

Most of all they are changing the way games are being played by kids, some as young as first or second grade, all the way through high school and beyond.

We are talking about traveling athletic teams for youth. They go by many names – select soccer, American Legion baseball and AAU basketball are among the most common terms used – but they all embrace the same basic idea of gathering some of the cream of the crop in a sport to provide better instruction and stiffer competition than what is available in recreational league programs.

The phenomenon has exploded nationwide over the past decade and Anderson County is no exception.

“When I came here, I couldn’t believe there was no summer program here,” says Chris Copenhaver, the organizer of the Central Kentucky Mudcats baseball organization, a program that is now in its ninth year. Copenhaver, a former high school baseball star at Somerset who played collegiately at Lindsey Wilson College, arrived in town more than a decade ago and began helping the Anderson County High School baseball team as a paraprofessional.

“I grew up in Somerset and we had summer baseball as long as I can remember,” says Copenhaver, a probation and parole supervisor for the state. “Our program and Shelbyville’s were recognized as the best in the state for a long time.”

Other prominent local select programs include the AC United soccer team, the Central Kentucky Batcats softball organization and the Anderson Elite girls’ basketball program. All but the AC United have begun since 2000.

“Before we started the Mudcats,” Copenhaver says, “some of our kids were playing summer ball in Shelbyville or somewhere close. On that 2000 team (Anderson County High School’s first regional baseball champion), most of those kids were playing summer ball in Lexington.”

It was a story often heard in local sports.

“In soccer, the kids at the high school level often must go to Lexington or Louisville, but there is the Bluegrass Soccer Club in Versailles,” says Julia Gustafson, the president of the Anderson Independent Youth Soccer Association.

Youth playing other sports have also joined select teams in surrounding towns such as Frankfort, Danville and Georgetown.

The Mudcats have traditionally focused on high school age boys but have added some local 19-year-olds who are aiming to play in college this year. “We did that because we play some American Legion teams and they have 19-year-olds,” Copenhaver said, adding that the Mudcats are not affiliated with the local American Legion. The roster is exclusively made up of local players who are basically taken from the Anderson County High School baseball roster.

Other sports might do things differently although most have tryouts for spots on the roster.

The Central Kentucky Batcats softball organization has fielded softball teams starting in the 8-and-under division and goes all the way through high school. Divisions are generally made every two years. The rosters are largely Anderson County kids but the organization’s reputation for excellence has also drawn players from Frankfort, Georgetown, Shelbyville and Lancaster.

The AC United fields three teams, beginning at age 8 and has some kids from other towns join the teams.

Meanwhile the Anderson Elite, perhaps the newest local team, is expanding. The first team is now basically the Anderson County Middle School eighth-grade team, but the group is offering some teams at the younger ages but exclusively for girls who attend Anderson County Public Schools.

“We started last year,” says Elite president Clay Birdwhistell, who is also girls’ basketball coach at Anderson County Middle School and an assistant coach at the high school. “We saw a need for a year-round team.”

So far, the Elite has shown its name is appropriate, finishing as runnerup in the 2008 state AAU tournament, losing in the final game by one point. “We were the only team that had kids from one school,” Birdwhistell remembers. “The team that beat us was from northern Kentucky and had kids from six different schools.”

But why the need?

“My first year (as middle school coach), we played Mt. Washington,” Birdwhistell remembers. “We had much more athletic talent than they did but they beat us by 15 or 16 points. I asked their coach what they did. She said that her kids played church basketball, AAU ball, middle school ball, freshman ball and YMCA ball. There was a huge difference in the skill level.”

The results have paid dividends at the high school level.

It is no coincidence that since the Mudcats started nine years ago, the Anderson County Bearcats have won three more regional championships. The Anderson program is arguably the most dominant in the Eighth Region and is considered one of the state’s best. “When you play as many games together as we do, you know what the other guy is going to do,” Copenhaver says.

And sometimes, the dividends are much more personal.

“She is a much better soccer player now, no question,” Gustafson says of her daughter, Katie, a rising junior at Anderson County who played for the Bluegrass Soccer Club over the past year.

A necessary part

of the game

The days of kids playing whatever recreational or school sport that is in season, then putting on a different uniform for another three months are fading fast.

“There are fewer and fewer Jacob Russells,” smiles Nick Cann, another Anderson Elite coach, referring to the current Anderson County High School star who might be an all-stater in three sports in the coming school year.

It is not a trend unique to Anderson County, either. Russell was recognized in the Lexington Herald-Leader for starting on football, basketball and baseball teams that all made it to the final 16 in each sport.

How unique? Russell was the only player in Kentucky who could make that claim in 2008-09. The list of recent three-sport stars at the high school level is so short that the notables, such as Russell and former Louisville Trinity star Brian Brohm, are the major exceptions.

It has become a fact of athletic life that in order to be good, one has to play against the best.

“The general idea of playing year round is great for kids to do, as they develop their skills and practice them weekly throughout the year,” says Jason Earnest, the girls’ soccer coach at Anderson County High. “The level of soccer for Anderson County has gotten much much better since I have helped introduce club teams or select soccer to my players. Everyone wants to know how to get better, and one most definite way to improve is to play or practice more often.”

Earnest, who has seen Anderson rise from a nice program to one that has become a fixture in the state’s Top 25 in recent years, knows from experience. He reflected back to six years ago when he coached the state’s Miss Soccer in 2003.

“When April Carbajal was playing at Anderson, I had two, maybe three kids that played year round. We had a couple of good players, but we didn’t have much hope beyond those players, as far as helping us win the district or region or get to the state. Everyone wanted to get better, so I told the parents, ‘Select soccer is where everyone needs to be if they want to be better.’”

Which is exactly what all of the local traveling team organizations are professing as their mission. Across the board, they say it is not to make kids choose one sport, but to get better at a particular one.

“The biggest thing is that it gives kids a chance to develop,” says Copenhaver. “You play together all summer and that’s a lot of ground balls.”

“From a parent’s perspective, it keeps kids from having too much time on their hands,” Gustafson says with a smile. “It keeps them healthy and active, plus, it just makes them a better player.”

The key, says Birdwhistell, is opportunity.

“There has been a paradigm shift in Anderson County,” he says. “In the past you had more kids just play in season and that was it. Even if they wanted to play (in the off-season) there were no opportunities.

“Now, there are opportunities to work on skills. When the girls get to high school, you will see a different brand of basketball at Anderson County.”

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.