New kids on the block

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Gaze onto the court at Covington Middle School in southwest Austin on a Sunday afternoon, and you will see something a little strange: Ten fourth and fifth graders play a full-length game of basketball without dribbling.

These kids are members of the Austin Wildcats, a select basketball program that coaches players from fourth grade through high school.

This no-dribbling drill is just one of the practice techniques that stresses what Darrel Smith, the program’s president, said the Wildcat organization is all about — basics.

“I started this program because I got fed up with select programs that don’t teach kids how to play basketball,” said Smith. “We stress the fundamentals.”

The Wildcat program boasts a number of coaches that includes University of Texas graduates, current students and former Longhorn basketball players Chico Vasquez and Kris Clack.

“I heard about the program from my teammate Kris Clack, and since we both wanted to get into coaching, it was a perfect fit,” Vazquez said.

<div style="text-align: center"><iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/19473859?portrait=0&amp;color=ffffff" width="450" height="332" frameborder="0"></iframe>
<br/><em> Former Longhorn athletes and UT students talk about the Austin Wildcats program. </em></div><br/>

Vazquez and Clack bring experience playing the college game to the Wildacts. In return, both have taken away valuable lessons in coaching, they said.

“I’ve learned how to organize a practice and figured out how kids learn, how different strategies work with different kids and the different methods you have to use to teach,” Vasquez said.

The program started in 1999 with only one team with three coaches but has now grown into a league with more than 500 students and 30 coaches.

Part of the reason the Wildcats continue to expand at such a rapid rate is because of the program’s consistency. All of the teams run the same basic system of defenses and sets while hammering in basketball principals at an early age.

“There are no agendas in the program,” Smith said. “The kids just get two hours of hard work in. We just want the kids to get better at basketball.”

The program shows no favorites and there is no showboating — they work on skills such as jump stops and the three-man weave at an early age. These drills are all designed to get the kids ready to make their high school teams.

“We win here when we hear kids made their school teams, and when we get e-mails from parents saying their kid made varsity as a freshman,” Smith said.

The players involved with the Wildcats are not the only ones that benefit. All of the coaches get teaching experience, establish themselves as coaches in the present while honing their skills for the future.

“The program is great due to the cohesion and the bond it forms with coaches. We have the freedom to coach how we want as long as it’s not totally crazy,” said Alex Hubbard, coordinator of the seventh-grade program. “It is an environment where all the coaches are willing to help each other out and share ideas.”

Teaching coaches how to coach and players how to play helped the program establish itself throughout the city, attracting kids coming from all over Austin.

“We are taking steps to be a really big program — we’re even starting to branch out into the suburbs,” said Garrick Gonzales, a coach in the program.

As the program expands, it has a need for more instructors, and a large majority of these coaches come from UT.
The core coaching group consists of current University students with majors ranging from kinesiology to advertising. For most of these students, the program is their first experience coaching and might be their last, but they said will take the skills they learned as coaches with them throughout life.

“I’ve learned to motivate people, which is a big part of life no matter what field you’re in,” said Mike Taylor, the Wildcats’ fourth-grade coordinator.

There are a number of Wildcat coaching alumni that have moved on in their coaching careers to be head coaches at middle schools and high schools throughout the area, including Daryl Rentfro at Three Rivers High School, Jason James at Cedar Park Middle School and Brittney Baiba at Austin Community College.

Those chose said they partially attribute their coaching success to the Wildcat program and what they experienced there.
“They know how to do things there, you pick up the basic fundamentals of teaching while also learning basketball for yourself through trial and error,” Rentfro said.