Taking it to the 'Next Level'

Picture this: a small group of small-town boys, fresh from the farm, walk into the dusty, old gymnasium and start dribbling the worn-out, tired basketballs. A couple of months later, they're playing in front of thousands of fans in a glitzy arena on their way to a state championship.

Sound like a fantasy? It is. And those days are over.

Now, to be a top team in Washington or nearly any other state, basketball players aren't seasoned on a farm but in the gym, nearly year-round. Young boys and girls master the art of the backdoor pass, the full-court press and blocking out in summer leagues, invitational tournaments, scrimmages upon scrimmages and learning the life of the gym rat.

"If you want to use basketball as a mode of education," says hoops guru Tom Hughes, "summer is a must."

Hughes and fellow coaches Jon Eekhoff, Jeff Carter and Ron Sather run Sequim Youth Basketball's Next Level, a year-round Amateur Athletic Union basketball program for Sequim-area boys and girls to hone their basketball skills to literally play to their next level.

Next Level's high school team is comprised of two freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors, all from Sequim, plus possibly one or two players from Port Angeles, says Carter, Next Level's all-around assistant coach and administrator.

The program has about 25 middle school-aged youths spanning grades five-eight.

Instead of simply focusing on skills and games, the Next Level program helps players to develop physically off the court.

Hughes says he stresses strength conditioning, nutrition, plyometrics, speed/agility training, team offensive/defensive concepts, team basketball methods, philosophy and more to get Next Level players in basketball shape - and keep them there.

If that sounds like a lot for a middle-schooler, you haven't seen the seriousness of basketball at that level recently.

"Some kids have no idea what it takes to compete at the high school level," Hughes says, noting that the middle school and early high school years are key times of development, particularly for boys. (Although Hughes is a certified personal fitness instructor who has worked with female hoopsters, Next Level is predominantly male.)

He helps the boys work on shot mechanics and transitions, them helps them learn to use their bodies to be more physical and not so shy.

And there are lessons for off the court, too.

"A lot of them are looking for guidance, someone to help," Hughes says, noting that the coaches make sure players are maintaining good grades and attending classes.

Next Level emerges

Sequim Youth Basketball traces its roots to 1979 when popular coach and athletic director Rick Kaps and his assistant Larry Hill began the Gym Rats program. Gym Rats used high school players to teach youths the game and it quickly became one of the most popular programs on the Olympic Peninsula.

Over the next 20 years, the original program combined with other community organizations including the Port Angeles YMCA and the Sequim Boys & Girls Club. In 1999, the original Gym Rats program was reborn as

Sequim Youth Basketball.

The program featured a winter recreation basketball league for youths in grades one-six. The league ran concurrently with the Sequim Middle School basketball season serving seventh- and eighth-graders. In addition, Sequim Youth basketball provided some financial support to the occasional "select" team that was put together and run by interested parents. The select teams competed at a higher level of competition in local basketball tournaments against other select teams from the Puget Sound area.

But because the Sequim select teams were organized and run by interested parents, they were short term in nature and sometimes lacked the quality, consistent coaching and practice necessary to be successful long term.

Next Level developed when Carter initiated a select program in 2006 until it blossomed into a year-round program in 2009.

The program is committed to "the development of youth athletes, their personal growth and their ability to excel on and off the court," according to Next Level's mission statement.

It seems to be working: Sequim's Next Level varsity team went 5-4 and placed sixth in the Northwest Sports AAU 2009 spring league in Tacoma, then went 5-3 in the Northwest Sports fall league in Seattle.

Next Level's combined seventh-/eighth-grade grade team won the Poulsbo league championship in the fall of 2009. The eighth-grade team took top honors at the Tumwater charity tournament in the fall of 2008

Most recently, the Next Level seventh-grade team won the Port Angeles Captain T's Spring Hoopfest Tournament on March 6-7.

Community support

Next Level has received financial help from the Sequim-area community to further the program, including a big donation from Jerry Allen at 7 Cedars Casino allowing coaches to buy 24 customized uniforms in the spring of 2009.

Other donations include: AJ Webb Construction, $500; Laurel Black Design for the Next Level logo, $500; Janet and Larry Hill, $250 for transportation; plus tournament cost donations from First Federal of Sequim, Clallam Co-op, Albert and Georgia Meier, Ted and Shirley Crosby, Randy and Camille Hall, Rick Johnston, Ken and Carolyn Johnston, Bill Littlejohn of Olympic Ambulance, along with Jennifer Ciarlo, Kris Henrikson of and Warren Kimzey each from Edward Jones of Sequim.

Reach Michael Dashiell at

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