By Alex Lippa
In 2009, the number of kids participating in Haverhill youth travel basketball was diminishing.
With only 32 kids playing travel basketball at the grades 5-8 level and the high school program struggling for several years, it seemed as if basketball in Haverhill was on the brink of extinction. But with the help of Eagle-Tribune sportswriter Hector Longo, the program has more than doubled in size over the last two years.
"A friend of mine came to me and explained to me the state of basketball in the city," said Longo, who took over the program in 2009. "We just had to do something about it."
The youth basketball program, part of Merrimack Valley Youth Basketball, will have at least four teams of kids in grades 5-8 this year, with the possibility of adding a "B" team at certain levels- a prospect which was unheard of when teams had trouble getting players to just show up for practice.
The influx of new players came as a result of reaching out to other groups recruit more players. The travel basketball league talked to the Haverhill YMCA as well as the Haverhill Boys and Girls Club, each of which runs its own intramural league, to gauge interest among players about playing travel basketball.
"Once we had a few kids talking about it, more kids came to try out," said Longo. "It was tough because some kids didn't even know that the league existed."
Another hurdle that needed to be overcome was the lack of gym time throughout the city. In previous years, the program would have trouble finding a set time and location for the team to practice.
But with the help of some powerful individuals in town, the team now has more permanent digs. Superintendent James Scully arranged for the teams to practice at the Silver Hill Charter School, and athletic director Tom O'Brien secured the Haverhill High gym on Sundays for the team to play its home games.
Brian Bourdon coaches the seventh-grade team, whose players last year won the Merrimack Valley Division 2 Championship. This year they will be forced to move up a division and compete at the Division 1 level.
"It's going to be a tough challenge," said seventh-grader Declan Davis. "We played in Division 1 two years, and we didn't do as well as we liked, so it's going to be tough again this year.
Despite the success of the program so far, Bourdon still believes there is more to be done to have the program reach the standards of other local teams.
"We still have some work to do," said Bourdon. "We are still so new to everything. We only still have practice one day a week, the teams we face are practicing multiple times a week."
With the lack of other basketball programs in the city, Bourdon and the other coaches must focus on teaching the fundamentals of basketball, which the competition has grown up with.
"Most of these kids haven't had real organized basketball," said Bourdon. "When we have practice only one day a week, it becomes a challenge to teach these kids."
One of Longo's goals for the program is to increase the pool of good local players, which he believes can make Haverhill High more competitive.
"Our hope is to make the pie of players bigger," said Longo. "We know that a few kids are going to Central Catholic each year and a few kids are going to go to St. John's Prep and Whittier. If we can have a bigger pie of kids than as a result more people will play at Haverhill High."
• • •
Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to hgazette.com.