Coaching shortage has this North Jersey town turning to high school students for help
ALLENDALE — Not exactly March Madness level, but last week's championship win by the Cool Ranch Doritos — a basketball team of third and fourth grade girls — was a pretty big deal, especially given the fact that their coach is a 14-year-old high school freshman.
Parker Sacks, a Northern Highlands Regional High School student, is one of 50 youth coaches who have stepped up due to a shortage of adult volunteer coaches in the borough's recreational basketball program.
In six league championships this year, youth coaches led all three girls' winning teams as well as the boys' grade 7-8 champs.
"How amazing is that?" said Chuck Strahlendorff, president of the Allendale Recreation Commission and commissioner of its youth basketball program. "Kids react well to youth coaches, and it gives them a chance to come back to the program and pay it forward to the next generation."
Strahlendorff said he began recruiting youth coaches 10 years ago.
"Parents were getting too wild and scaring other coaches, so I had a shortage," Strahlendorff said. "That led to more and more youth coaches joining each year, and now we have nearly 50."
Strahlendorff recruits his volunteers from Northern Highlands Regional High School, where he serves as head coach of the freshman girls' basketball team and supervisor of the high school rec program. He said acceptance by adult coaches was "initially slow" but that parents were eventually "completely won over."
"Kids lobby to be invited to participate," Strahlendorff said. "We use them to referee and score games if they don't want to coach. We manage them and teach them about leadership, and ultimately write recommendations for them based on performance. It has been transformational for our program."
The league includes teams from Highlands' four grade school districts: Allendale, Ho-Ho-Kus/Saddle River and Upper Saddle River. Teams play by town in grades 3-4 and grades 5-6, but they are integrated in grades 7-8 to familiarize students with one another as future classmates at the high school.
All 19 Allendale basketball teams at the grades 3-4 and 5-6 levels have youth coaches, as do 17 of the 21 teams at the grades 7-8 level. Strahlendorff said youth coaches are "starting to expand into other sports like soccer and softball."
Parker's grandfather Chuck Dombeck coached Allendale rec sports for years, and Parker's mother, Lauren Dombeck Sacks, played soccer and basketball at Northern Highlands. She had to become involved because Parker is still too young to drive, but said, "Parker did it all."
"I just sat there," she said. "He was in charge of the equipment and lineups to make sure they had equal playing time, mixing experienced players with learners. Every parent of a kid on that team was incredibly supportive. The younger kids related to the high school kids, and were going to their games to cheer them on, too."
Parker said he began coaching "for fun," even if it meant coaching his twin sisters, Remy and Tatum. A member of the freshman basketball team, Parker pulled in teammates to assist with coaching.
"The hardest part is teaching defense, slide your feet, keep your hands up," Parker said. "Also, stop before you shoot. They try to shoot while running, and it doesn't work. And getting them to listen during practice."
Also challenging: the all-important midseason team name change.
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"They started out as the Shooting Dragons, but because their uniforms are the same color as the bag, they decided to rename themselves the Cool Ranch Doritos," Parker said.
The best part, he said, was seeing the girls improve over the season.
"There were girls who couldn't shoot a layup at the beginning," Parker said. "As the season went on, I thought, we could really win this."
Team member Keeva Carey said it was her first year playing, and she enjoyed their "secret handshake" with Parker as well as their victory "Oomph Dance." She agreed that her shooting performance improved.
"I've played soccer with adult coaches, but I thought Parker was more poised," Keeva said. "Teenagers are closer to our age than grownups. I only scored three times all season, but that was a big accomplishment."
Mayor Amy Wilczynski called the youth coach program a "win-win."
"The kids in the program relate very well to younger coaches," Wilczynski said. "For the young coach, the experience offers them an opportunity to develop capabilities needed to handle diverse complexities in college and work life.”
The Cool Ranch Doritos beat out 10 teams including their Ho-Ho-Kus/Saddle River rivals on full court for the championship by a final score of 18-9. The team's parting gift of thanks to Parker: a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: It's a 'win-win': North Jersey town turns to teens to coach rec teams