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Falls Summer Sports Camps let athletes develop multiple skills

James Starks is quite the athlete, a former three-sport standout at Niagara Falls High School and currently a star running back for the University at Buffalo football program.

But what would have happened if he had had an opportunity to be introduced to the sport of ice hockey at a young age?

The same question can be asked of Greg Gamble, a guard for UB's men's basketball team who in 2005 helped Niagara Falls become the only Western New York Class AA school to win a New York State Federation basketball championship. Could he have excelled in baseball or tennis if the opportunity to play those sports had been an option to him as a youngster?

The third installment of the Niagara Falls High School Summer Sports Camps gives all school district youths from grades seven through 12 an opportunity to try sports they're not accustomed to as well as giving them the chance to hone their skills in sports they're most comfortable playing. But the five-week-long camp, which runs through Aug. 10 at Niagara Falls High, isn't only about sports.

The program is about teaching character -- with some of the city's most accomplished scholastic athletes serving as the instructors -- as well as having fun in a safe environment and a free lunch.

"During the school year, many of our students participate in the free or reduced lunch program," said program director Susan Ross. "The camp provides a balanced lunch for them. It also provides an opportunity for something . . . to do. Many of the kids are too young to have jobs, or there aren't enough jobs for that number of students in the community. It gives them something to do with their free time.

"Finally, it provides students with a positive outlook on school. A lot of students [who] aren't successful either socially or academically don't view school as a place where they want to be. But, when they come to the camp, it provides them with a positive influence, and they view school and the teacher as a place they want to be and people they want to be with. In camp there's no testing, there's no assessment. It's just a fun environment."

The district is able to offer the camp at no cost to the students because it received a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant from the state Department of Education. The grant, renewable every year until it expires in 2009, along with funding from the Board of Education, enables the district to offer camps in nine sports: boys and girls basketball, ice hockey, softball, track and field, baseball, soccer, tennis, wrestling and weightlifting/conditioning. More than 500 youngsters are expected to attend the camp, which features 35 instructors.

Helping to make the environment fun for the kids are Falls graduates serving as coaches or events coordinators. They include Starks, Gamble and former UB track and field standout Faith Thompson. Thompson is currently an assistant coach at Buffalo State and is a former Hewitt Award winner, an honor bestowed annually upon the top male and female scholastic athletes in the county who also devote time to volunteering within their communities.

All three have been with the camp since it started in 2005, but Thompson earned a promotion this summer to head track coach. It's an honor the former Empire State Games and Mid-American Conference champion in the hammer throw takes seriously.

"The City of Niagara Falls has done so much for me that it's only natural for me to come back and give back to the school [district] that helped mold me," said Thompson, who also works as a counselor for the Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna. "I take joy in being a positive role model . . . especially being a female athlete when males get a lot of attention. You can be a female athlete and have a lot of success."

Thompson enjoys teaching youths the benefits of working hard and being dedicated because that's the key to success in life, not just in sports.

"Athletics is a great way to teach responsibility and mold character for life," said Thompson, a former Powercat who graduated from Niagara Falls in 2000 before the merger of old Falls and LaSalle high schools.

Thompson isn't the only successful Falls alumna coaching in the camp. Brittany Pryor, who captured All-American honors in the shot put last winter for Virginia Tech during the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, is assisting Niagara County Community College coach Frank Rotundo in running the girls basketball camp. That's a new addition, along with hockey and weightlifting/conditioning to this year's roster.

Kenny Briggs, a senior who plays football, is in the weightlifting/conditioning camp but last year participated in baseball. The lineman is focusing on just the weightlifting this summer, along with senior quarterback Allen Menefield, because the organized routine of the camp conducted by football coach John Bass allows them to train in a disciplined manner.

Football practices across Western New York start Aug. 13. The Wolverines open the season Aug. 31 at defending Section VI Class AA champion Orchard Park.

"This is really good for us to help us get ready for the football season and give us a chance to compete with the other teams in [Class AA]," said Menefield. He said he might be home playing video games if not for the camp.

Working the camp is part of a busy summer for Gamble. He also is taking a night class at UB, doing off-season workouts and pickup scrimmages with his fellow UB basketball teammates and has been practicing with the Western Region's open team that participated this weekend in the Empire State Games in Westchester County.

But Gamble enjoys working the camp at his alma mater. He understands being a success story from Niagara Falls comes with responsibility.

"These are the names they all heard about while growing up," he said. "To be able to work with these kids and have them get to know us on a personal level is big for us because they look up to us."

Starks does plan to give hockey a try before the camp ends. The hockey portion, divided into beginners and advanced classes, takes place from 12:45 to 2:15 p.m. at Niagara University's Dwyer Arena. Equipment is provided for the youths participating in the school's hockey camp.

Starks' appearance will satisfy a dream hockey coach Marc Catanzaro has had for quite some time.

Catanzaro can't help but think what could have happened if Starks, a pure athlete, had a chance to learn the game as a youngster.

"I always say [that] tongue in cheek," he said. "We have a lot of pure athletes who come through the high school. If I get a kid in sixth grade, teach them the fundamentals of the game by their senior year, who knows?"

Ross said the district may add bowling, golf, lacrosse and volleyball to the program's roster next summer.


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