Rec ball provides stepping stone to high school sports

·6 min read

Jul. 9—Just a few years ago, the likes of Kylie Chavis and Kemarion Baldwin were playing rec sports in Robeson County.

Who from today's rec teams will fill their shoes as some of the county's biggest high school sports stars?

The pipeline, from rec to preps, provides stepping stones as Robeson County Parks and Recreation Department's sports provide feeder programs for local high school teams.

This is especially true this time of year, as high school baseball and softball coaches — during a break from the high school schedule in the summer months — often help out with leading these rec teams.

"It gives them a chance to play against competition, and not have to travel all out of the county to do it and pay a whole bunch of money. That's why they do it," said Ricky McKinnon, assistant director of Robeson County Recreation. "A lot of kids look forward each year to rec ball, because they couldn't play or didn't make the school team, so they look forward to rec ball over the summer."

Nearly all of Fairmont and St. Pauls' athletes played recreation ball with Robeson County Recreation; Red Springs has its own recreation program but it competes against the Robeson County Recreation teams. The City of Lumberton and Town of Pembroke also have their own recreation programs, but many Lumberton High School athletes came through rec at Littlefield or Magnolia, and Purnell Swett athletes often come through rec ball in Prospect.

Robeson County Recreation baseball is open to ages 5-16 and softball is open to ages 5-18; about 700 to 800 kids are playing with Robeson County Recreation this summer, McKinnon said. The preparation for high school ball begins, on some level, practically from the beginning.

"We teach the fundamentals," Robeson County Recreation director Wendy Chavis said. "I truly believe a child needs fundamentals. Once you get to the middle school, it's hard for a coach to teach fundamentals, it's past that. That's what the city and all our parks and recs, that's what we need to concentrate on is fundamentals."

"Playing Little League baseball is different than playing middle school, and middle school is different than high school, but we introduced them to the game," McKinnon said. "And then we can see some kids, we can see that talent there, when the kid is in the fourth, fifth, sixth grade, that if he keeps his head on right and keeps his grades up that's going to be a name that you're going to hear again at one of our high schools."

Many of the oldest rec teams — the age 13-16 level for baseball and age 13-18 level for softball — are where local high school coaches become involved. Purnell Swett softball coach William Deese works with three teams, all of which play at the school; Fairmont baseball coach Kelly Chavis works with three teams, coaching one of them, and says an additional South Robeson team also provides a feeder program for the Golden Tornadoes.

Fairmont softball coach Donnie Carter and St. Pauls baseball coach Matthew Hunt and softball coach Phillip Tyler are also closely connected to rec teams.

"I just want to see kids play baseball and we try to provide them that opportunity. Thanks to Robeson County Parks and Rec for allowing us to do that," Kelly Chavis said. "I feel like it gives our guys quality reps. Some of the younger guys who may not have gotten as many ground balls or as many at-bats throughout the season as some of the older guys. And then it allows some of the older guys that are still of age who have played varsity to kind of show some of the younger guys the expectations of our program and what we're trying to work toward."

Not everyone who plays at the rec level will play middle school or high school sports. But even for those athletes, these coaches want to provide the opportunity to enjoy themselves on the field.

"Some kids may not want to, or may not be able to play middle school, but once in their life they've got to play basketball or baseball or softball, or be a cheerleader," Wendy Chavis said.

"Not everybody that plays rec ball will play high school ball, but there are some that do it," William Deese said. "Even at the high school level, my young ladies that play with me, they come back during the summer and they play, and we use it as a means of continuing playing and just getting better."

Some of the athletes may not have played school ball this past academic year — but through the improvement provided through rec ball may have a better opportunity to play next year, doing so in a less-pressure-packed environment with less emphasis on winning than at the varsity level.

"We actually have that with several of the kids; there's several kids that, for whatever reason, they were unable to play school ball this year, whether it be attendance, grades, they didn't have a physical at that point in time, or what have you," Kelly Chavis said. "We actually have a couple kids I spoke with that I said, listen, if you play this summer that gives you an opportunity."

And for the ones who do end up playing under Kelly Chavis, Deese, or any of the other high school coaches involved, the coaches and players build a level of familiarity in the summer season that can only help when the school season comes around.

"It has been big for us, because I actually get to spend time with upcoming players, young ladies who are coming to Purnell Swett; they get an opportunity to spend time with me, and see how we do things here at school, and actually get to play and get better," Deese said.

Purnell Swett's Kylie Chavis is a two-time Robeson County Player of the Year in girls basketball who played with Robeson County Recreation growing up, including football, which she played through middle school. The last three Robeson County Heisman awards — Kemarion Baldwin, twice, and Marqueise Coleman — were won by former Robeson County Recreation athletes. Purnell Swett basketball's Natalie Evington, St. Pauls basketball's Jakieya Thompson and Fairmont baseball's Malachi Gales are other high-school standouts who have been through the program — and so is Vonta Leach, a Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens who played 10 years in the NFL and began playing youth sports with Robeson County Recreation in Rowland.

"It's a joy to watch these kids when they're young, then start reading about them in the newspaper and seeing them on TV when they get to high school," McKinnon said. "It gives you great joy as a recreation person to know that the program we're providing to the citizens of this county is making a difference for the kids on the high school level."

Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at cstiles@robesonian.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.