July 29, 2011
BY BRIAN RICE
KNOXVILLE -- Hundreds of young athletes spend part of their summer vacations improving their games and skills at one of Tennessee's summer sports camps. And they get to do it all in some of the nation's finest athletic facilities.
For the programs running those camps, though, there's more than just coaching up young athletes from around the region. Summer camps serve as a front door for many of the programs on campus. For some, camp is a chance to bring in fans - both campers and their families - from all over the country that have previously only seen Tennessee through the eyes of a TV camera.
For the Tennessee athletes who participate, camp is a chance to interact first-hand with the young fans that spend all season cheering from the stands. For two Vol programs in particular, this summer's camps serve as a chance give fans and campers a hands-on look at their new coaching staffs.
"We use camp to connect not just our program to our fans, but also to the university as a whole," he said. "It's important to sell our program, but we're also selling the brand of Tennessee. Camps are designed for these kids to come and fall in love with our university. Hopefully, we are, at a young age, creating Vols for life. That's the bigger scope, not just coming to camp and getting better at basketball, but creating Vol fans."
Pancratz says creating fans and strengthening the bonds with kids that already bleed orange also has its own rewards.
"It's awesome when kids come in with different jersey numbers on, then get to meet the player with that number, that's why you do it," Pancratz said. "To see the smiles on the kids' faces. That's the best part."
Pancratz appreciates the challenge of holding a camp before fans had a chance to Martin's team on the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"It was a little more high stress for all of us," he said. "It's the first thing at Tennessee that Coach Martin put his name on, so we wanted to make it to the high-class and high standards that Coach Martin expects for the program."
"It's cool that they get to know us and work with us one-on-one instead of just watching from the stands," Robinson said. "Then when they do come to the matches and cheer for their favorite player, then they get an autograph and picture, that's he best part for us."
Tennessee's Volleyball Camp also serves a bigger purpose for the growing sport of volleyball in East Tennessee, according to head coach Rob Patrick.
"We try and get more young players involved in the sport," Patrick said. "Not just here on campus, but also at satellite camps at area middle schools."
The growth of the sport in the Knoxville-area is something that rising sophomore Kylann Scheidt has seen first hand. Scheidt is the first scholarship player from Knoxville in Patrick's 14 seasons at UT. Schiedt was a highly coveted recruit after a stellar career at Farragut High School, but she picked UT over other SEC programs.
Still, Scheidt's roots are in the volleyball-rich state of Nebraska, where she lived and played until her sophomore year of high school, and she sees the volleyball in this area growing at a rapid pace.
"It's cool to see," Scheidt said of volleyball's local growth. "Kids coming to camps in the numbers we're seeing goes to show how it's growing in this area and how they do appreciate the game of volleyball."
Patrick adds that the growing talent in the area is no accident.
"Coming to a three- or four-day camp here, players really see an improvement over that time and go back and then may be the best player on their team at their middle school or high school," Patrick said.
In the case of volleyball, the instruction and outreach that camp provides isn't limited to local players. Patrick has opened up the doors to camps and clinics to local coaches, again with an eye on improving the sport in the area.
"Hopefully," Patrick said. "By doing that, we're able to also help educate the coaches, show them some new drills, show them some new ways of teaching skills to help them be successful and build up the quality of volleyball."
"We had campers in our last pitching camp from as far as Colorado and California," said Sayne, a former Lady Vol pitcher and lifelong Knoxville resident. "We're just able to extend our reach out beyond our base here in East Tennessee, and that's really special."
National exposure and attention the program received from nationally televised games and four Women's College World Series appearances since 2005 have made the program - and by extension its camp - a truly national.
"Our numbers were way up, and being on ESPN so many times this season was a big reason for that," Sayne said. "Girls all over the country see us on TV, and it attracts them to come here and meet the players and meet the coaches and see what Tennessee has to offer."
Like men's basketball, the baseball program is in a unique position of holding camps before the staff has coached a single game in Knoxville. It's a challenge that director of baseball operations Kenny Gajewski relishes.
"For us, the biggest thing is getting our brand out there," he said. "I think the most important thing in this time of transition is to open this place up, especially to the younger kids. We want them to be around us, around our players and in our stadium. This place is beautiful, and we want them to see that and be excited about coming to games here and camps, fan days, anything we have."
With the level of baseball talent in East Tennessee, getting those local players on campus for camps is a move that can be mutually beneficial.
"Coach Serrano has said that our philosophy is going to be to start with Knoxville and work our way out," Gajewski said. "The Todd Heltons, the guys that are from here, that's who we want first, and our camps are a good way to get that started. But bringing in coaches from all over really gives the kids another set of eyes on them as they try to improve and get better. For every kid out there, every set of eyes that can get on them is a real bonus."
"For the high school kids, it's about taking care of core credits and registering for the (NCAA) Clearinghouse," Pancratz said. "For the younger kids we talk about wanting to get better in basketball you've got to practice, and if you want to get an `A' on a test, you're going to have to study and prepare the same way. We talk to our guys about being student-athletes, and we treat our campers the same way."
From academics, to outreach, to helping campers improve, all of Tennessee's summer camps and clinics come down to one, simple goal: Building a community.
"Being involved lets us get out in the community and become a real part of the community," Robinson said. "That's what it's all about."