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Junior achievement Buffalo Public Schools' JV basketball program scores points with students, coaches and administrators

At McKinley, sophomore C.J. Gardner and his classmates are talking about it in homeroom, buzzing about it in the hallways. They can't wait to play their next JV basketball game, can't wait to play in front of a crowd after school, can't wait to work on their game that they hope to take to varsity someday.

Finally.

The Buffalo Public Schools has instituted junior varsity boys basketball as part of the Yale Cup schedule this season, a step hailed by many in the city as at least as beneficial as it is overdue. While suburban and Catholic schools have had feeder programs in place for years, there has been no JV program in the city.

"That's all they talk about in the morning, that's all they want to know: When's the next game, who do they play," said McKinley junior varsity coach Zaire Dorsey. "Everyone is looking forward to it."

JV games tip off at 4 p.m. while the varsity games have moved from 4 to 5:30. Twelve of the league's 13 teams will have a JV counterpart (the exception is Seneca, which is undergoing a transition in becoming the Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School at Seneca).

"It keeps me off of the streets and it's good for my education," Gardner said. "It keeps me striving in school so I can get better grades so I can play basketball, and it makes me feel better about myself because I can show my talents."

Administrators couldn't have said it better themselves. From an athletic perspective, having a JV program certainly will help the continuity of programs and should increase the level of play for teams and individuals. But city officials are equally as enthusiastic when it comes to the first word in student-athlete.

"One thing in education is that the more active youngsters are in school activities, the better it is for the community," Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. James Williams said recently just before a JV nonleague game. "These kids are in here, instead of out in the street. Now they have a sense of purpose -- they're playing basketball as ninth and 10th graders. We're preparing them for the varsity and making sure they're also academically prepared to be good students.

"The goal is to make the varsity. Then the next goal is to make it to college: Division I, II or III. It's not just Division I basketball, there are programs all over the country."

>Hitting the books

Mayor Byron W. Brown also sees the JV program as a chance to create a track for student-athletes that hasn't been there before.

"We know that there are a lot of young people in the past in this community who have had great athletic talent, but academically were not able to go on to college or receive a scholarship," Brown said. "Through this initiative . . . we will now see young men and women go from JV to varsity, to be academically eligible to play, to do well academically and then go on to college and receive scholarships because of their athletic and academic abilities."

Coaches have already seen the first signs of how JV basketball can lead students to the books.

"These kids know that if they want to play basketball, they have to get their grades up," Riverside varsity coach Ron Killinger said. "Especially at Riverside, which maybe isn't as academically oriented as other schools -- we've already had kids who were struggling at the beginning work to get their grades to come up so they'll be eligible."

Participation is obviously up with the additional teams, but the reaction of students has exceeded expectations.

"Kids are flocking to it," said Dave Thomas, the Buffalo Public Schools' athletics director.

Killinger said he had about 65 students try out for his school's two teams.

With cliches like "win-win situation" being used from coaches to higher-ups to describe the decision to add the JV program, why had the city gone without one for so long?

"It's way overdue," Thomas said. "But we didn't have the funding to do it before. It wasn't until Dr. Williams got here that we got the funding."

The JV program is part of a major emphasis Williams has put on athletics since he came to Buffalo about 18 months ago.

"It's the right thing to do," Williams said. "For whatever reason, Buffalo had not put a lot of resources into the athletic program. I just think it's a part of education."

Said Thomas: "We're trying to level the playing field with the suburban schools and the Catholic schools, and we've got the support of the superintendent."

Much of the groundwork for the current program began four years ago when Thomas joined with Police Athletic League Executive Director Sue Gonzalez to create a Saturday all-day JV program at the Grabiarz School.

Thomas knew the city needed a JV program but didn't have the money for it; the PAL helped not only organize the Saturday program but also applied for grants that helped fund it.

"The first year we had eight teams, the next we had 12 -- it was a total success," said PAL Director of Athletics Orv Cott. "The kids looked forward to it, they were there on time, they stayed for every game, the games were well-attended by the kids and their parents. It was just a wonderful experience for them."

Cott, a former longtime coach in the city who still officiates games, lauded this year's JV program.

"There are so many kids, they just need a chance to develop," he said. "A kid who comes in as a 5-9 freshman would have nowhere to play, and by the time he's a junior he may be 6-2, but he wouldn't have the experience. [The JV program] gets kids involved, and they love it. It's just a winner."

Mayor Brown watched his son, City Honors junior guard Byron Jr., compete in the Saturday program the last two seasons.

"It absolutely helped him, being able to get that on-court experience -- there's nothing like it," Brown said. "It was invaluable to further develop his game, but now with the additional chance to play young people will get, it will help them take their games to an even higher level."

And while the Saturday program has been a success, games used a running clock and lasted about an hour.

"This is more structured, so it will benefit the kids in the long run," said Dorsey, the Macks' JV coach. "They're able to play at their home school, they can play before the varsity, and they get to showcase their talents to their schoolmates."

>Room made for girls

The advancement of the boys JV league has now created an opportunity to upgrade girls basketball in the city. The PAL is continuing the Saturday program, but now it will be for girls. Cott said City Honors, East, Hutch-Tech and Bennett are already signed up for a volunteer-run girls league that began last week.

There was some JV boys activity last season in addition to the Saturday program as some schools pieced together a few games on the JV level. Riverside, McKinley and Hutch-Tech are just some of the city schools that have had junior varsity squads join the varsity in making trips to nonleague games.

"We would have some practice time last year for JVs, but nothing like this year," Killinger said. "Last year, we would try and get them a Friday practice if they had a Saturday game, but now they practice as much as the varsity. There's a lot more structure."

That structure will help the teaching process in gyms the same way it does in the classroom.

"It's going to help the league tremendously because now we get a chance to develop kids with younger players playing 16 to 20 games a season," said McKinley varsity coach James Daye. "What a basketball player learns in ninth or 10th grade must be fundamentals. It's like having an algebra prerequisite to geometry or advanced math. Then you can move on to strategy, then to X's and O's. With the talent level we have in the city, if it is developed properly, we can see a lot more Division II and Division I players come out of this area."

"Everything's got to improve," Thomas said. "Freshmen and sophomores are playing instead of sitting on the bench. There's 16 kids who might have been in the stands who are now playing. The kids absolutely love it. I keep going to the JV games because they're so much fun."

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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