College conferences, Hillside partner on free youth sports clinic

It didn’t take long for the competition to heat up between the Spartans and the Girl Power Pandas Oct. 5. And that’s good thing, given that the boys vs. girls soccer scrimmage lasted only about five minutes.

Amid the surplus giggles, shouts of encouragement from the sidelines and occasional (injury-free) collision, about a dozen boys and girls, ages 5 to 12, didn’t just run, kick and swerve around the pitch with sometimes reckless abandon. They practiced the passing, ball-handling and sprinting skills they had spent the previous 15 minutes learning.

And such was the goal of a free youth sports clinic at Hillside Community Center. A combined project of the Rocky Mountain Athletic and Mountain West conferences, and presented with the partnership of Hillside Connection and the City of Colorado Springs, the clinic gave young athletes the chance to learn from some of the best in the business about basketball, football, soccer and track and field.

Each session was coached by a cadre of collegian student athletes, all of whom are members of the conferences’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. It didn’t matter whether the sport was a collegian’s personal game of choice, the most-core virtues — sportsmanship, teamwork, hard work and dedication — were universal.

“This year we wanted to go to Hillside to reach more kids,” said Carolayne Henry, senior associate commissioner for governance and legal affairs with the Mountain West Conference. “We want people to know athletics are in the community.

“If we have even one kid say, ‘I want to go to college and I want to do blank.’ … ”

Her voice trailed off, but the proud expression on her face as she watched the college-aged mentors and their much-younger mentees race across the rolling lawn said it all.

A place for growth

To be clear, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) and Mountain West Conference are two separate entities.

The RMAC consists of more than a dozen Division II schools in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and South Dakota. It counts among its members the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, Colorado State University – Pueblo and Adams State University.

The Mountain West Conference, on the other hand, comprises Division I programs from across the western states, including Hawaii, California, Nevada and New Mexico. It includes among its ranks the Air Force Academy, Colorado State University and the Colorado College women’s soccer squad.

Both conferences are based in Colorado Springs, and each has a student-athlete advisory committee that Henry said is designed to give participants leadership experience and offer them a chance to collaborate on and address topics that uniquely affect college athletes.

We bring them together to talk about issues that impact student athletes,” Henry said. “You have athletes from all different backgrounds. … It’s been so much fun to watch it grow.”

The inter-scholastic committees meet at least twice a year, and their gatherings include a community-service project, Henry said. The youth sports clinic marked two firsts: The first time both committees met as a collective and the first time their outreach efforts landed them in Southeast Colorado Springs.

Breaking boundaries

Henry is a native of Battle Creek, Mich. A member of the University of Michigan women’s basketball team from 1982 to 1986, she was among the ground-breaking female athletes who first took the hardwoods by storm.

In the decades since, she has seen and helped shepherd the growth of women’s college athletic

programming. And that’s part of the reason, she said, that it was important for all the young participants to try their hands at every sport during the clinic.

“It’s becoming more acceptable for girls to play,” she said. “I had encouragement from my dad, so it’s kind of cool to see dads bringing in their girls.”

Doug Martin couldn’t hide a grin as he watched his girlfriend’s daughters, 6-year-old Aryanna Grounds and Taylor Haynes, 10, work through a series of soccer drills.

“I’m just exposing them to it,” Martin said of the clinic. “Even if all they get out of it is to have a fun day out here and have fun with other kids.”

Martin played baseball and football. He now mountain bikes and weight trains, and praised the lessons learned from athletics.

“It’s teamwork and dedication. It’s learning and a new skill and developing that skill,” he said.

For 22-year-old San Jose State University swimmer Kimberlee Giggey, the clinic meant even more.

“If they’re interested in a sport or they want to stick with something and even go to college, they can see us and be inspired by us,” she said.

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Born to run

Damenica Holston wasn’t always a runner. But last year, at age 10, the gregarious North Middle School student decided she wanted to take up track and field.

Of course, a little competition doesn’t hurt.

“Her brother … really excelled in basketball,” said Shirley Hawkins, Damenica’s grandmother. “She wanted to do something other than her nails.”

Damenica giggled as she explained how naturally she found her stride.

“I like the running and I can get exercise,” she said, during a break between football drills.

As for the gridiron, well, she’s not planning on sporting a helmet any time soon.

“Football is hard,” she said. “It’s just hard and a ball flies at your face. It’s scary.”

Nonetheless, a few sips from the water bottle later, and the fierce, athletic little girl was off and running. To cheers from her student-athlete coaches and the encouragement of her peers, Damenica clutched a football against her chest and sprinted through a drill.

Hawkins glowed as she watched her granddaughter at play.

“They can enjoy the air, the scenery and they can be healthy if they’re out here taking part,” she said. “That’s what I want them to do.”