U-M camps

During the summer, thousands of teen-agers and pre-teens flock to the University of Michigan to hone their skills in their respective sports
News Sports Reporter

The Ann Arbor News, July 29, 2001
      From the parking lot outside the offices of the University of Michigan athletic department, a series of "thwacks" emerges from the first-base side of Ray Fisher Stadium.    
     Most visitors would guess that the sounds are from some University of Michigan baseball players, using this typically hot summer afternoon to get the kinks out of their swings.
     Well, no.
     Upon closer inspection, the truth is revealed.
Hockey pucks. A steady stream of them. About 35 teen-agers, paradoxically armed with taped-up hockey sticks and wearing summer attire, are taking turns hitting slap shots at a dozen pock-marked wooden boards leaning against the Fisher Stadium fence. Two coaches are aiming radar guns at the shots, which can reach up to 74 miles per hour - not bad, but not quite in the 100 mph range of the shots that most pro and college players can fire.
    Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
    In the rear of one of the lines, Russ Haws and John Ballorin are engaging in an impromptu drill of their own. The two 13-year-olds are taking turns picking up a puck with their stick and tossing it to each other. The puck hits the ground more often than it hits their blades.
    It's the final day of this latest four-day session of the University of Michigan hockey camp. And the ice is not always all that matters here. In another session just few days later, about 40 hockey campers will be tossing a soccer ball on nearby Ferry Field in a game of "Commando Ball" - an Ultimate Frisbee-like passing game that the Swedish National Team developed to teach teamwork and communication on the ice.
    In a few minutes, Haws and Ballorin along with the rest of the group will strap on their heavy gear and hit the ice at Yost Arena for the second of three times that day. The prospect of another few hours of intensive instruction doesn't faze either of the two boys.
    "It's a good workout," said Ballorin, an eighth-grader from Westland who hopes to improve his skills so he can become an elite junior hockey player. "Sometimes we're shooting pucks, sometimes we're doing power scrimmaging and sometimes we're scrimmaging."
    The whistle blows. It's time to go inside.
    From June 15 to Aug. 1 every summer, the median age of the athletes playing in the fields, gyms and pools of the University of Michigan drops by about a half-dozen years.
    This is peak camp season, a time when the sounds of U-M coaches barking out orders to players is replaced by gentle words of cajoling instruction. A time when athletes who have already achieved success at the Division I level are supplanted by teen-agers and pre-teens who, for the most part, hope to follow in their footsteps.
    Almost every U-M varsity sport has established a parallel camp at Michigan. Kids can get instruction in popular sports such as basketball and baseball, and other activities such as rowing - which sets up shop at Belleville Lake every summer.
    But the term "University of Michigan" in each camp's title is almost a misnomer. One of the school's associate athletic directors, Dale Bahr, supervises the programs that welcome up to 9,000 youngsters each year. But the camps themselves are run by the coaches, who pay the university a per-camper fee and rent for facility use. The university's cut of camp revenues usually amounts to no more than $200,000 a summer, a mere drop in the bucket for the athletic department, which brings in about $50 million a year.
    Where it makes an impact is on the individual coaches, particularly the assistants who in many cases are directly responsible for running them and thus the main beneficiaries of the fees. Bahr, who was U-M's wrestling coach until two years ago, recalls what one-time athletic director Don Canham told him when he was first hired in 1978: The school won't pay you much, but you'll have plenty of opportunities to make money with camps. There were three camps back then; today there are 18.
    The income assistants earn varies, depending mainly on how many campers attend and how much they are charged. Bahr estimates some assistants can effectively double their salary, while others will earn around $5,000.     Jokes Ryan Rezmierski, the U-M hockey team's video coordinator, of his summer-camp earnings: "It gives me spending money to play golf. It doesn't make my house payments."
    Their day at U-M field hockey camp having just ended, Ellen Barrer, Amy Binder, Margaret McNair and Jane Petoskey are packing their gear in a minivan driven by Amy's mother, Leslie.
    The four Ann Arbor girls are discussing why each one of them chose to attend this year's camp. Not surprisingly, considering the broad cross-section of attendees, their reasons vary.
    Barrer, 12, is a serious field hockey player who went to older sister's games and plays on a team coached by her father. One day, she hopes to play in college.
    Binder, also 12, is a longtime player as well, but she's less sure about her future intentions. "It's fun, and it challenges me," she said.
    McNair, 11, is a sports nut. Field hockey camp is just one stop in a summer that will include stays at basketball and roller-hockey camps.
    And there is Petoskey, 9, who would rather spend all summer at home, playing with her dog and lounging in the backyard. Her parents would never agree, so she chose a quick five-day session of intense field hockey - the sport she chose to concentrate on several years ago.
    "All my family is into playing sports," she said. "And I wanted to do something different."
    Most U-M varsity programs operate several sessions a summer, giving campers flexibility to work around their other summer plans and maximizing the income that the camps can generate.
    No program can operate more than four weeks during the summer. And none all at once: Many camps depend on using common facilities, required indoor space in case it rains and need a certain amount of dormitory space. Hockey and swimming, because of the uniqueness of their facilities, are the only camps that can operate five weeks.
    However, softball coach Carol Hutchins has steadfastly resisted running more than one camp a summer - even though enrollment for the late June session has grown from 30-60 in 1989 to 150 kids this year.
    "My time is too valuable," said Hutchins, who does most of her recruiting during the summer. "Summertime is really busy. I'd rather have one week for camp, the rest of the time for recruiting or time off."
    Nonetheless, Hutchins said she gets a charge from her one week of teaching kids how to field, hit and pitch. Not because she gets to meet future stars (she estimates that 25 percent of the campers "at best" will play college softball) but because of its role in promoting her beloved sport.
    "The biggest thing it does is P-R," she said. "That's our role: To teach the sport. We provide a positive role model for them.
    "The kids have a ball. And that's what it's all about."
    Some parents send their kids to U-M sports camps to improve their skills, often so they can be taught by professional coaches for the first time. Others want to give their children, particularly the older ones, a chance to live in dorms and ensconce themselves in a university environment before they pick a college.
    Those aren't the only reasons.
    Take Michelle Macke of Ann Arbor. She signed up her daughters Erica, 12, and Colleen, 10, for girls' soccer camp for the third straight year. And this year, her niece Devan, 8, came along.
    The three girls are still at a stage where soccer is just a "fun sport," even though they get caught up in the drills and 3-on-3 tournaments that make up the typical day.
    They've been to other Ann Arbor camps as well. But Macke considers the U-M camp special because it's the only one where all the instructors are women.
    "The coaches are good role models," she said. "It's good for them to see women who are playing sports in college."
    With more than 1,800 campers a year, Michigan's football camp is easily the most attended sports camp at the school.
    It is also the exception to the rule, Bahr says.
    One of the primary goals at the U-M football camp, as it is with other camps run by big-time football programs, is to attract recruits.
    If that happens at most of the other camps, it's almost by accident. About 12 years ago, Bahr contacted Joey Gilbert, a four-time state high-school wrestling champion in Illinois. It turned out that Gilbert already had a positive impression of U-M's wrestling program: As an eighth-grader, he had gone to Bahr's camp. Gilbert wound up wrestling for U-M from 1989-92, finishing 11th in the program's all-time win list.
    "It does happen," Bahr said. "But it's not as organized as football."
    One reason why: Most of the elite junior athletes in their particular sport don't need to go to camp, where the emphasis is instruction. Instead, many use their summers to compete on the national level in individual competitions or with their club teams.
    At U-M women's basketball camp, the second-most attended on-campus camp with 1,510 campers last summer, there's a mixture of skill levels. Fundamental camps are designed for beginning or intermediate-level players who want to take the leap to the next level. Coach Sue Guevara also runs an invitation-only elite camp that brings together the best high-school players in Michigan. Current Wolverines Alayne Ingram, LeeAnn Bies and Heather Oesterle are among the past attendees.
    The camp also features off-the-court activities. A skit night often includes several dead-on imitations of Guevara - and often gets the loudest guffaws from the 47-year-old coach.
    "It's all in good fun," said Molly Murray, the team's director of basketball operations and the camp director. "They seem to really enjoy it."
    Peter Raymond, 11, started wrestling a few years ago at his Belleville elementary school, which offered an intramural program in his sport.
    This summer, the North Middle School seventh-grader decided to get serious: He convinced his father, Douglas, to send him to U-M wrestling camp.
    It was turning out to be a worthwhile experience. During sessions that lasted from morning until night, Raymond was learning certain skills, such as reversals, for the first time. The 5-foot, 80-pound youngster was also wrestling against kids his own size for a change. How was he doing? "Not too well," he said, shaking his head.
    Still, he was far from discouraged. Which didn't surprise his father, noting that his son will probably use his early difficulties as motivation to get better.
    "I think we'll be back," Douglas Raymond said. "This is a good camp."
    Nearly a year ago, swimmer Chris Thompson was mounting the medal stand in Sydney, Australia, receiving his just rewards for finishing third in the 1,500-meter freestyle event.
    Things are a little bit different for the U-M senior on this summer afternoon. He is inside Canham Natatorium, where the air is thick with the sounds of nearly 100 teen-agers swimming endless laps. Just a few moments earlier, he had been joking with another group of swimming hopefuls gathered on the outdoor patio. They had split into pairs for a drill to improve their reaction time - the familiar childhood game where one person tries to slap the back of his partner's hand before he can take it away.
    Thompson has worked at the U-M swim camp for four years. This time, things are a little different. Because he has used up his collegiate eligibility, Thompson is not bound by the NCAA rule that says student-athletes who work at the camp cannot spend more than 50 percent of their time teaching. In some cases, programs comply with the rule by having athletes act as counselors who escort campers from venue to venue. Others just limit the amount of time that their athletes work at the camp.
    NCAA compliance takes up a good portion of Bahr's day. The associate athletic director must not only file papers showing that student athletes are not getting paid out of line (about $250-$450 a week, depending on the type of camp) but also document how much each camper paid to attend, ensuring no one gets special treatment.
    How else are things different for Thompson? Well, there is that bronze medal.
    "It gives me a little more legitimacy," Thompson says. "They used to know me just as a Michigan swimmer. Now they know me as an Olympic medalist. Maybe they'll take what I say a little more seriously."
    U-M's co-ed swim camps will also feature cameo appearances by fellow medalists Tom Dolan and Tom Malchow. Campers treat the latter former Wolverine "almost like a mythological figure," Thompson says.
    Which Thompson - a former camper himself - understands perfectly.
    "When I was a kid, I loved to meet Olympians," he said.
    Back at Ray Fisher Stadium, this time inside its confines, Terry Mattingly has her eyes firmly planted on the shortstop playing a mock game at U-M baseball camp.
    He is Phil Mattingly, Terry's son and a "distant, distant" relation of former New York Yankee Don Mattingly.
The 17-year-old Mattingly is entering his senior year of high school as one of the top prospects in northern Ohio, having hit .380 this past season for Ottawa Hills High School near Toledo.
    He and his parents are traveling across the country this summer as he plays at invitation-only elite camps. The previous week, the 6-foot, 183-pound senior had been at Baylor University in Texas. Next week he will be at Louisville.
    "This is big summer for him," Terry said. "This will determine whether he goes to college on a baseball scholarship."
    The side is retired. Terry watches as her son heads for the dugout.
    The younger Mattingly has attended baseball camp since he was a first grader. He's using this summer's camps to further hone his fielding skills - a well as catch the eyes of potential future coaches.
    "It's a neat experience for him," his mother said.
    Picking up a black aluminum bat and stepping up to the plate, Mattingly fouls off the first pitch. The second pitch is a little outside. Then the third comes down the pike. He reaches out and crushes it.
    The ball rockets to the outfield, sailing over the left fielder's head and a few feet shy of the 330-foot sign. There are appreciative murmurs from the other parents in the stands. One woman says "nice" loudly.
    Mattingly easily makes it to second base before the relay throw can arrive. His batting helmet and the shadows from the bright sun obscure his face. But chances are, he's smiling.