Randy Hofer, executive director of The First Tee of Greater Wilmington, is shown with youth participants at the group’s new practice facility next to the Wilmington Municipal Golf Course. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
When Larry Salefsky first started coaching beach volleyball, his program only used one, sometimes two, sand courts and had five- 10 participants depending on the day. Ages were spread with 18-year-olds sharing the sand with 12-year-olds.
Fast-forward six years, and the scene has changed quite a bit.
“It has increased so much over the past few years, and that spring program that we just had with around 50 kids, that was unreal how many kids we had,” said Salefsky, owner and founder of the East Coast Volleyball Academy. “We were using five courts every day for practice just for the program, which didn’t even include our year-round group separate from that.”
This is the story of many youth sports organizations around Wilmington. As competition increases on the national level, more players, ranging in age from 5-years-old to pre-collegiate, have flocked to local programs.
Some of the East Coast Volleyball Academy’s biggest numbers are 12-year-olds who have picked up the sport, which shows promise for continued growth.
Salefsky said that both the emergence of the sport on the collegiate level and the Summer Olympics contributed to the increase of junior beach volleyball in the area.
Almost every junior beach volleyball tournament around Wilmington sells out with competition coming in from different places throughout North Carolina. East Coast Volleyball Academy players even faced teams from as far as Florida and Colorado at the USA Volleyball National Qualifier held in June at Capt’n Bill’s.
Salefsky had seven teams play in the USA Volleyball junior beach nationals this July, the most in program history.
Another local organization’s increased funding led to a new practice facility next to the Wilmington Municipal Golf Course. The First Tee of Greater Wilmington’s site opened May 2 in conjunction with the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship, which donated money for the practice area as part of the visiting golf tournament’s outreach program.
The 18-month project included a public-private partnership with the city. The city provided the land, and the local First Tee’s board raised more than $1 million for the facility.
The group is looking to serve 25,000 children in southeastern North Carolina by 2019, officials said.
The First Tee teaches young golfers both golf skills and core values such as honesty, integrity and respect, according to the group.
Participants can receive certification during the 10-week spring and fall programming. Certification takes kids through a progression of levels starting at player and advancing to ace.
“It goes with progression, so as they learn the core values and the golf skill and get older, they move up to the par, birdie and eagle level,” said Randy Hofer, executive director of The First Tee of Greater Wilmington. “And then ace is the top where they’re in high school, they’re giving back, they’re mentoring some younger kids.”
Kids start as early as 5 and 6-years-old and PGA instruction is available for all participants.
“We have all the statistics that show kids of the First Tee program do better in all aspects,” Hofer said. “Meeting and greeting people, their confidence level goes up, they do well in school, they understand the responsibility that goes on.”
The organization currently has about 350 juniors in its certification program.
Waves of Wilmington (WOW) has also made a splash in the area with around 180 participants.
WOW, a year-round swim team, gets kids in the pool as early as 5 and coaches many swimmers until they are 18 and ready to leave for college.
TJ Black, vice-president and support coordinator, said the sport has become more competitive on the state and national level over the years. WOW’s program has grown with the increased competitiveness and gets its greatest influx of junior swimmers after a Summer Olympics year, according to Black.
The team is a part of USA Swimming and competes in large meets such as the state championships, sectionals, junior nationals, senior championships and age group championships.
The program participates in the East Carolina Swim League as well. This league connects WOW swimmers with competition from places such as Greenville, Raleigh and Greensboro.
Summer competition is not as intense as the team’s winter schedule and some swimmers choose to only train throughout the warm-weather months, opting out of meets.
The current season is, however, about to come to a close.
“The next couple weekends there are some championship meets, and then it will be over and kids get about three weeks off” until the fall season starts, Black said.
The Greater Wilmington Tennis Association is growing the sport by helping junior players feel comfortable with competition early in their careers.
The association designed the Summer Sizzler L6 tournament to provide beginner players with a lower stakes place to participate in their first or second tournament. Ranked players are not allowed to participate, creating a fun and laid-back environment, said Rosanne Boswell, the junior tennis coordinator.
“Kids can come play their first tournament without getting trounced all over, which research shows that before we developed this L6 tournament, kids would play one tournament, and then that would be it because their experience was just so awful,” she said.
Play Day is another event for beginners that includes fun tennis games to give the young athletes a taste of the sport.
Junior tennis encompasses a lot of different programs for the Greater Wilmington Tennis Association, and the greatest influx of participants come through the local schools, according to Boswell.
“Really for us, the best marketing come from the parents and the schools,” she said.
Starting at the elementary school level, the association has a four-week program called Tennis Up! that meets for 45 minutes after school.
At the middle-school level, there is a competitive after-school league. Both these programs are free and growing as more students and schools get involved. Not only is the association growing locally, but Greater Wilmington Tennis has been heating up on the national level as well. “Last year we saw lots of growth in our Junior Team Tennis program,” Boswell said.
Junior Team Tennis, a competitive program pulling in juniors from all over the country, is available for players 8 and under through 18. Within the past five years, the association had two teams go to nationals, Boswell said.
This year, she took about a dozen teams from Wilmington to the state championships in mid-July.
“Locally, what I see is players desiring more play time in competitive settings,” Boswell said, “I see more kids coming to the sport, and they are definitely getting more competitive.”
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