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Sports program targets higher ground

| February 17, 2005 11:00 PM

By Steve Kadel, Western News Reporter

All the elements were in place.

The concession stand did a brisk business. Cheerleaders jumped and waved their pompoms. Spectators yelled encouragement. And on the court, players sprinted after loose balls and battled for rebounds.

Coaches got caught up in the action, too.

³Good hustle, Mary. Good hustle,² Brian Stewart called to one of his players. A minute later he shouted, ³Britney, set a screen up top here.²

It could have been a high school or college basketball game in any gym across the country. Except the participants were a lot smaller.

Upward Basketball and Cheerleading includes almost 200 Libby-area children in grades one through eight. They play eight games during a season that lasts through March, with one practice a week.

It was show time Saturday at Libby Middle School.

Players on coach Cody Jelley¹s third- and fourth-grade Lady Volunteers team huddled around him for last-minute instructions before hitting the court. Then it was organized chaos as the pint-sized hoopsters gave it their all.

A whistle cut through the air, signaling a foul. As a thin-armed girl went to the free throw line, an adult capturing the action on video camera said to a friend, ³That¹s a long shot for a little kid.²

Ten-year-old Michaela Curry took big gulps of water from a plastic quart bottle after her game concluded. This is her first year in Upward Basketball, but Curry already wants to play high school ball when she¹s old enough.

What¹s the best part?

³I like the fun of the games,² she said.

Curry¹s team was among the winners Saturday, but racking up victories isn¹t the program¹s main goal. Instead, organizers and coaches emphasize good sportsmanship and other positive qualities.

³We talk to the kids about treating others like we would want to be treated,² said Bob Powers, one of three co-directors. ³This year¹s theme is ŒThe Characteristics of a Winner¹s Heart.¹²

Kevin Sanderson, whose 9-year-old daughter Sandra plays, appreciates the sportsmanship and other values that are taught along with basketball basics.

³They want them to be friendly and get along with others,² he said.

That¹s something Libby High School boys basketball coach Wally Winslow appreciates. His 8-year-old son Jared plays in the program.

³The true definition of sport is about having fun and learning to play as a team,² Winslow said.

It¹s been a long time since Libby had a youth basketball league, he added. Upward Basketball fills a needed niche, and high school teams will eventually improve as a result, Winslow said.

³It promotes the game and gets the kids excited to play,² he said. ³They will play in their driveway or with friends on the playground at school. It brings the general interest level up at a younger age.²

The program began last winter with 121 participants. Each child pays $25 to play basketball or $35 to be a cheerleader.

Co-director Myresa Boulware said that doesn¹t quite cover costs. Some local churches donate money to make up the difference, she said.

Boulware pointed out that cheerleaders don¹t back any particular team. Instead, they cheer for everyone who is playing.

³It¹s not about my team is better than your team,² she said.

All the same, players show every bit as much determination as their older counterparts when they drive to the hoop or play pressure defense.

Co-director Stewart, who took a stint as referee when his team¹s game was over, agreed there¹s a healthy competitive spirit.

³The kids really have fun,² he said.