EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
MARBLE FALLS — The sound of squeaky shoes on gym floors as kids scramble for basketballs or drive for the basket fills almost all of the Marble Falls high school and middle school gyms on Saturdays. And it’s a sound Marble Falls High School girls basketball coach John Berkman loves hearing, even if it means he’s spending more time at the gyms.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is to build a basketball culture in the Hill Country,” he said. “And it’s not just something that benefits Marble Falls. We have teams and kids from Kingsland, Llano, and Johnson City.
“This is something that’s going to help all those (high school) programs,” Berkman added.
It’s Young Guns, a youth basketball program for elementary-aged students through the sixth grade designed to get them on the court and playing. This year, the program has drawn more than 300 kids from across the Highland Lakes and the Hill Country, enough for at least 43 teams.
When Berkman talks about building a basketball culture, he’s describing not only the development of young players skills but also their love and enjoyment for the game. And that’s one of the keys about Young Guns: getting kids in the sport at a young age and giving them a chance to be successful.
“Success isn’t always about winning or being the leading scorer,” Berkman said. “Sometimes, it’s maybe you didn’t score your last game, but this time, you made a basket. It’s about getting better and having fun.”
For the past few years, volunteers like Eric Smith really ran and organized Young Guns, but this year, Berkman and the schools stepped in to take the lead. Berkman praised Smith’s work to keep Young Guns active and viable.
“If it hadn’t been for Eric, we’d probably be building from scratch, but he did a great job,” the high school coach said.
The program still relies heavily on volunteers — parents, high school athletes, and others — for coaching, managing the games, and running the clock.
Berkman pointed out that several area high school basketball players serve as coaches for the younger teams.
“For the younger kids, it’s pretty exciting for them because they look up to the high school kids,” Berkman said. “And for us (high school programs), it’s great outreach to the kids and the community.”
As a high school basketball coach, Berkman sees Young Guns as vital to the health of area high school programs. These young players get a head start on learning basic basketball skills, so when they hit the middle school level, they aren’t starting from the beginning.
All this might sound overdone, but in today’s high school basketball world, getting kids playing in elementary school and helping them develop those skills before even middle school is a big part of a high school program’s success. In the Highland Lakes, programs such as Young Guns can help get the kids on equal footing with their suburban and urban counterparts.
It’s not uncommon for suburban and urban communities (particularly in more affluent areas) to have very competitive youth basketball leagues. Parents can come together and hire outside coaches to lead teams, particularly in select leagues.
It’s a very competitive system. These select programs can pick the best of the best players, who then feed into the communities’ high schools.
Those are the very same players Highland Lakes youth might face on the court some day at the high school level.
Young Guns, while not a select league, helps build that basketball foundation for Highland Lakes youth.
But for Berkman, it’s really about instilling a love for the sport in the kids.
“We start by putting them in position to be successful,” Berkman said. “When they start having that success, and it can be something small at first, but then they start just loving the game.”
Even if they don’t all go on to play high school basketball, Berkman pointed out that the kids learn a number of skills, including hard work and competition, which will help them in other endeavors.
Nick Biagini, a volunteer coach who has two daughters in Young Guns, sees the benefits for the kids stretching beyond just basketball.
“I think any physical activity they can do helps with kids athletic development, even better if they do multiple (sports),” Biagini said. “Every sport or athletic event requires a little bit different skill set, so playing multiple (ones) allows them to develop a variety of skills.
“I have always tried to relay that the skills you learn in practice and during games, things like teamwork, self-motivation, confidence, and perseverance, are things that benefit you in life,” he added. “In ten or twenty years, they won’t remember the score of a mid-season game, but they will, hopefully, remember the teamwork, effort, and confidence they gained that season.”
Of course, there’s one more thing coaches like Biagini and Berkman want the kids to have during Young Guns — fun.
“First and foremost, I want them to have fun,” Biagini said.
“We try to play as many games as we can because the kids enjoy playing games,” Berkman added. “And we want them to have fun.”
Parents interested in keeping up to date with Young Guns (including future registrations) can go to the league’s Facebook page at facebook.com/younggunsbasketball.