RICHLAND, Wash. — Its been standing-room only in the Richland High School upper gym this summer.
The sounds of bouncing basketballs, squeaking shoes and shouts of encouragement filled Art Dawald Gymnasium each Tuesday and Thursday for the first six weeks of summer.
For boys like 11-year-old Elijah and 9-year-old Noah Hyatt, it was an opportunity to improve as basketball players, but also get an introduction into the Tri-Cities only basketball feeder program the Richland Gunners.
The feeder program aims to get young boys in fifth through seventh grade familiar with the offenses, defenses and terminology used at the high school level to improve their learning curve if they do eventually play for the Bombers.
The summer league doubled in size from 2011-12, topping out at 120 or so kids this summer. It is nearing capacity because of the limited space in the upper gym.
It is kind of a high-speed pickup game, said Gary Hyatt, Elijahs father. They have never had that experience before, and it is extremely beneficial as far as the basketball skills go and their confidence level.
The West Richland dad signed his two sons up to play in the program after they reached the top of their game in the Parks and Recreation leagues.
This game is a lot faster than what they were doing at Parks and Rec, Gary Hyatt said. They are learning a lot more basketball skills, and how it is really played. It is a step up or two from a beginners club.
Elijah said that though there is a lot of running involved in the summer league, it still is fun. He gets to wear the green and gold, just like the high school athletes, and he gets to play with a group of kids he quickly became friends with.
Just getting to play is awesome, Elijah said. This is tougher, but it is still easy enough to do it. And it is way fun.
The basketball club is the brainchild of 1987 Richland High alums Jeff Kreutz and Joe Northrop, who started the summer league in 2011, and run AAU club teams in the fall as a part of the Richland Gunners.
They also put on skills clinics in the spring. Participants must live in the Richland High attendance zone.
Joe and I both had tremendous experiences at Richland High School, Kreutz said. We both had a great experience playing basketball there. We are both Bombers, and when we got together, we talked about how we can help not only Richland in general, but the Bomber program.
The pair met with Richland High boys basketball coach Earl Streufert and hatched the program. The feeder programs the club teams that play in the fall are popular around the state at many dominant basketball schools. The high school basketball season runs from December to March.
We also have the other objective to try and develop better high school teams for Richland High, Northrop said, and to get back to where they used to be when they were competing for state championships on a regular basis. We kind of have that longer-term objective, and it will be kind of neat to see what happens over the next several years and see if it will pay off.
The programs focus is learning core fundamentals, based on the Richland Bombers program, Kreutz said.
This year we have seen the kids play harder, play faster and become better basketball players, he said. By building chemistry with their classmates, and learning the basics of how the Bombers play, it will improve the athletes skills down the road.
The end goal isnt necessarily to play Bomber basketball because there are so few that will make it in the long run, Streufert said. It is just to give kids an opportunity to see if they like the game and possibly have some success.
And part of that success is getting to play in a fun and relaxed, yet structured, environment during the summer something not readily available to kids in Richland.
When I came to Richland, there wasnt a Richland program for (his kids) to play in, said Streufert, who will coach his 14th season with the Bombers this winter. It was difficult for them to find a place to play. With the Gunners starting up, when someone new comes to town, there is a structured place for them to play in town. Rather than trying to make some all-star team, they can play with their buddies in Richland.
For me, that is one of the best things. Those kids from Richland get to play together. There is no substitute for that, he said.
With plenty of other sports offering summer programs, the Gunners have helped fill the basketball void in Richland.
Im a proponent of multiple sports. Thats what the high school experience is all about, Streufert said, but during the summer there are lots of opportunities for baseball kids to play baseball, but very few for young basketball kids to play.
Maybe we can get those kids playing in more of an open gym, where they can come when they are available and not get overcoached. Just learn to play by running up and down the court and having fun.
Thats what Spencer McMurdo emphasized when discussing the benefits his two sons, Aidan and Cael, have received from playing in the summer league.
Basketball is just a fun sport for everybody, he said. It is just something that I think all these kids need to enjoy and experience for as long as they can, because when they get into high school it really gets weeded down.
To help with overflow of the near-capacity program, Kreutz and Northrop fixed up the outside courts next to Fran Rish Stadium.
We havent had to go down there a ton because the weather hasnt been great, Kreutz said, but weve gone down there and the parents love it down there, because they played down there. We went through and cleaned up the court, painted the backboards green and gold, painted all the lines and that stuff.
The Gunners are hoping to continue to add teams to the 10 or so they plan on having this fall, but they will need more coaches to volunteer as Kreutz and Northrop are stretched thin.
We would like to continue expanding, Kreutz said. As long as we can get coaches who can coach, we will keep grabbing kids who want to be Bombers in the future and putting them on the teams.
The pair have talked about adding a girls program in the future, but that also would take more volunteers. Northrop did work with Richland High girls coach Cindy McCoy to promote some skill camps for girls.
For now, though, Kreutz and Northrop are just enjoying all the hard work they are pouring into the club.
Throughout the season, its a second job, Northrop said. It is without question worth it. It doesnt even feel like work. My kids are involved and it is all worthwhile.