Few aspects of the community bring more satisfaction to all than youth sports. Parents, coaches and the kids themselves enjoy the ability to take in competition at the most basic level, where the reward is a good time and valuable life lessons in teamwork are etched in the memories of the participants for years to come. Ideas in Motion Media recently wondered about some of the youth programs in Northwest Indiana, some which have been around for quite some time and others fairly new and looking to expand.
Over the last month we talked with organizers of six of those programs, each representing a different sport, and would like to add a brief about all the others in this “youth sports round-up” feature. We’d like this to be a guide to all the athletic programs offered to youngsters in the region, so please send in suggestions for future interviews. Send your club info to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a look at a few.
Since we are in the heart of football season, where play on the gridiron dominates the minds of sports fanatics everywhere, it’s only fitting to start out with a football program.
Pop Warner exists in many Northwest Indiana communities. Portage, Chesterton, Valparaiso, Griffith, Munster, Highland, Merrillville, Kankakee Valley, Lowell, Tri-Town (Schererville, St. John, Dyer) and Michigan City all boast Pop Warner teams, with the Michigan City team winning the national title in 2010 and placing second in the nation in 2012.
Ryan New, a Michigan City High School graduate who played prep football, is now president of the Hobart Pop Warner program, which has five teams. The Junior Pee Wee group (8,9,10, 11) , Tiny Mites - (5, 6), Junior Mighty Mites (7,8), Mighty Mites (9-year-olds) and Pee Wee team, which has 9, 10, 11 and 12-year-olds eligible, are designated by weight. Each team played 7-8 games a year, competing mainly against other local Pop Warner teams, with trips out of the region scheduled on occasion.
“Hobart Pop Warner is a great organization,” said New, who also serves as an assistant coach for one of the younger teams this year. “We put an emphasis not only on athletics, but in school too. If the kids don’t get good grades, they can’t play. The push is to get as many kids as possible off the street and use this as a way to turn in a good future for them.”
The Hobart Pop Warner League, which has 200 participants (140 in football, 60 cheerleaders) is open to not only residents of Hobart, but kids from New Chicago and Lake Station as well, since neither of those two cities have a Pop Warner program. Cheerleading is available for girls at the same age levels as the football teams.
New said the program is currently going through “major changes,” with the program’s board of directors “making things more efficient in getting more kids in the program and making sure everything runs smoothly.”
The joy of watching your son or, in New’s case, daughter play football for the first time is always a thrill for parents.
“My daughter plays football and I was coaching in her first game,” New recalls. “When we won, it was very rewarding to see the kids’ faces light up and see everything they’ve worked so hard for pan out.”
While Pop Warner has been an institution for years, new programs often described as “feeder” systems for high school athletics have been popping up recently around the region. In Michigan City, the NWI Fusion have been around since 2012. They are an AAU travel program with teams at the 4th, 5th, 7th and 8th grade levels. Currently, 40 boys take part in the program run by Michigan City High School head boys basketball coach John Boyd.
“I believe in the program Coach Boyd has installed here,” said Kathy Workman, a volunteer for this league as well as the high school boys teams. “He has a great plan and vision to keep youth basketball going after they had to drop it from the elementary schools.”
The idea is for Boyd to guide the players at the youth level and eventually be more prepared to jump into the high school program when they reach Michigan City High School.
With boys participating from both La Porte and Porter counties, this basketball season is year-round, with all games occurring mainly in tournament-style and all on the road.
“It promotes giving the younger kids something to do year-round,” Workman said.
Like the Hobart Pop Warner club, Workman says the NWI Fusion is “very academic based.”
“They need to show the coach their report card to play,” Workman said. “It is really an all-around good program with support from great coaches.”
And even though the program may be young in years, the NWI Fusion have already reached a level of success. They have come out on top at several tournaments, bringing home championships.
The newly formed Michigan City Basketball League will soon be another year-round basketball option for kids in Michigan City. Mixed teams with boys and girls competing will play tournament-style games every Sunday at Michigan City High School beginning this fall.
A program with a longer history of success in Northwest Indiana is the Valpo Swim Club, which recently brought home both state and zone championships.
The 10 and under girls followed up their spring state championship with a repeat performance at summer state. 10-year-old Meg Calumpang placed first in all six events she entered, breaking a number of long standing state records in the process over the summer and coming home with the prestigious “High Point Trophy.” Beyond state, five Valpo Swim Club girls competed in the USA Swimming Central States Zone, a 5-state competition. While all five came home with medals, Calumpang won third place in the girls 10 and under division.
The success seen over the summer is nothing new to the club, which was formed in 1977 through the efforts of former Valparaiso High School swimmer Paul Bretscher, who recognized the need for a year-round competitive swimming program in the community.
Under the direction of coach Lisa Starkey, the program has “gone through the roof - with champs at all age groups,” according to Dawn Noel Brown, vice-president and fundraising coordinator for the club.
“Coach Lisa has been with us for three solid years now, where we went from sending 1-2 kids to state to sending 50,” Brown said. “It’s her all-around process on how to train the swimmers, which focuses more about technique than distance.”
Under Starkey, 70 percent of team members have made divisional, state or zone cuts. In 2011-12, she was named the Northwest Indiana Conference Coach of the Season and was later selected as an assistant for the First Divisional IN/USA Swimming Camp.
Brown, who swam for the club herself when it first began, says the swim club is “wonderful.”
“I believe in what the club does, and always wanted to continue to be a part of it,” she said.
The Valpo Swim Club operates during two season of the year: one which begins the Monday after Popcorn Festival and ends in mid-February and the other from mid-April to mid-July, with champion swimmers usually seeing their summer season extend into August.
And while practices are not mandatory, keeping high marks in school is. Just under 90 swimmers take part in the summer season, with up to 120 involved during fall/winter.
“Our kids train really hard and get out of it the work they put in,” Brown said.
With the popularity of swimming growing in Valpo, which is partially thanks to the club, Brown and others hope it will mean success, and a new pool, for the high school.
“We have three Olympic-size swimming pools in Lake County, so that’s where all the larger meets are,” Brown said. “If we could introduce more kids to the and have something available for the kids here, that would be a great thing.”
“It’s always good to dream big,” she said.
Age groups in the Valpo Swim Club are broken down to 8 and under, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14 and senior division. Boys and girls compete separately.
Registration is available at ValparaisoSwimClub.com. Questions should be directed to Brown at email@example.com or 219-916-4792.
While swimming (and gymnastics - more on that to come later) have been the strengths of youth sports in Valparaiso, it’s all about the baseball diamond up the road in Portage.
The Portage Tribe, a travel baseball squad first started by coaches Ken Elwood and Rob Russell, has seen “large growth” in the number of kids trying out every year, Elwood said.
What started initially as a Portage Little League turned into the Tribe when Elwood said parents and coaches saw the town of Chesterton become “really successful” in producing little league all-stars by having their kids take part in travel ball.
“Coaches on our side thought it would be better to play all travel baseball,” Elwood said. “So we had meetings with Tim Pitrowski, the high school coach, and got a concept to develop a feeder system for the high school teams. We’d have kids from throughout Portage Township compete and he (Pitrowski) would teach us how he wanted the kids taught. He's held several clinics and been around a lot working individually with some of our players.”
Since then, the program has grown consistently - adding another level each year. Now, the program has six age groups: 9-under, 10-under, 11-under, 12-under, 13-under and 14-under.
“We’ve seen a big growth in the number of kids that tryout,” Elwood said, noting that about 20-30 kids are seen at tryouts at each age group every year. About half those who tryout make the team.
“We could expand and take more kids outside of Portage, but we like the concept of being the feeder system to PHS,” he added. “Portage has always been a solid (baseball) program, but Tim has really brought it to another level.”
The first wave of Tribe participants when the program began are now freshmen and sophomores at PHS. Elwood said the results are clearly showing.
“You can definitely tell they are the more developed kids with more off-season work and better preparation,” he said.
Wins at the high school level can now be somewhat predicted with with the success of the Tribe. In just six years of existence, the Tribe have seen both 10-under and 11-under teams place third in the Baseball Players Association (BPA) World Series and a pair of teams win the Indiana state championship.
The Tribe play tournaments in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana - with the closest one being somewhat of a host-site at Imagination Glen. With offseason training beginning in December and tournaments taking place from March to mid-July, younger teams typically play 35-40 games, with more experienced groups at 50 to 60 during a year.
Tribe coaches: 14u - Grant Cummins, Bob Gertzen (former); 13u - Rob Warchus, Miguel Derbuzco (treasurer), John Tabor; 12u - Jim Wilkie, Jeremy Rivas; 11u - Dave Burhans; 10u - Paul Ostrander; 9u - no coaches yet, volunteers sought.
To volunteer, email co-founder Ken Elwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A group that bridges not only youth and high school levels, but an adult activity as well is the Junior Striders, which has runners involved from Lake, Porter and La Porte counties. They are a younger version of the Calumet Region Striders, a popular running group in Northwest Indiana .
“You don’t have to be a great runner, this group provides good conditioning for a lot of other sports and takes people of all different abilities,” said Beth Boyer, a Calumet Region Strider who has headed the Junior Striders program for about five years now. “From a kid’s perspective, you get to run with the best athletes in area.”
The Junior Striders run in two different seasons, the track season in spring and cross country in the fall. Kids ages 6-18 are involved with the program.
“Once they get into middle school, they are probable running for the school track or cross country teams, but our season extends past that so we actually see a lot of runners join when they are in middle school,” Boyer said. “We have kids that just want to get in shape and others who want to travel and compete in different meets around the region and nation.”
The fee to run in the program, which is AAU affiliated, is $25 with a minimum of eight weeks included for track and 12 for cross country.
“The camaraderie you get is second to none,” Boyer said. “You meet other people who enjoy running and many find that this is something you can do for the rest of your life.”
One of the larger youth sports clubs in Northwest Indiana has nearly 500 total players who love competing in the world’s most popular sport.
Three Lions United, the newly formed name of a merger of soccer clubs Northwest Indiana United, Indiana Magic and Three Lions FC, has teams from all age levels from 8-18 and schedules games and tournaments throughout the Midwest. Home games are played at parks throughout the region in Merrillville, Crown Point, Lowell and Portage as well as Crete, Illinois.
Soccer, according to Mike Rance - director of coaching for Three Lions United and original founder of Three Lions FC, is a sport that can help shape young athletes into competitive players regardless of size
“It doesn’t matter how big you are - you could be 5’4” or under and still be successful,” Rance said. “I have a lot of respect for other sports here, but they depend a lot on size on some level. The luck of the draw in the gene pool sometimes draws success. Here, success is based on how hard you work at it.”
Soccer has been a part of Rance’s life for as long as he can remember, once competing in clubs and school teams while growing up in England and then coached Chicago Fire camps in the United States before launching the Three Lions FC club six years ago.
“It’s an active sport,” he said. “A lot of kids participate because they are know it keeps them in shape.”
The inspiration behind Three Lions FC came from region parent who didn’t like the level of training presented and gathered to form an organized out-of-school club.
“It kind of snowballed from there,” Rance said.
Now, Three Lions United had about 30 teams through all their age levels, with many being girls teams. That focus has already made a difference at high schools in the region.
“Anytime you go to a high school girls game, you can’t find a star player that wasn’t with us,” Rance said. “We also have over 30 former members that are now playing in college.”
Outside of being the largest soccer club in Northwest Indiana and the only one in the region with a full girls and boys program, Rance says the level of coaching separates Three Lions United from the rest.
“We have so many dedicated coaches,” he said. “They all share the philosophy of not focusing on the short term goal of winning tomorrow but to develop players so they can enjoy it and play well for years to come.”
Three Lions United plays in the Midwest Regional League against similar clubs from throughout the Midwest.
Interested parents can sign their kids up at www.threelionsunited.com or get in touch with Rance or the other two directors of the program: Matt Aloia (youth director) and Mis Mrak (academy director).
While “very popular” with younger kids, Rance has seen that interest sometimes fades when kids reach seventh or eighth grade - with many beginning to focus on other sports or activities. But that is changing more and more, he added.
“I’m starting to see a lot of parents and I coaches I work with who grew up playing soccer themselves and are now sharing it with their kids.”
Here are some other youth sports clubs in Northwest Indiana. (Send us more if you have them!)
SEVERAL SPORTS CLUBS