OXFORD — The communities of Oxford Hills don’t have a YMCA or a YWCA. There are no Boys and Girls Clubs and the summer camps that line western Maine’s lakes are mostly populated by kids from away.

With a student population of over 1,000 and maybe 60 spots available for the best of the best athletes to play on Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s varsity and j.v. basketball teams, opportunities for teenagers to participate in the sport are thin.

What Oxford Hills does have is the Warrior Sports Club, a volunteer-run program for kids aged 12-18 who just want to play team sports.

A safe place

The Warrior Sports Club was founded back in 2011 by a group of parents whose children didn’t make the cut during basketball tryouts. With enough kids to fill two teams but no gym to call home, volunteers cobbled together schedules and car pools and hopscotched from court to court to get practice and playing time.

Warrior Sports Club member Kalvin Page of South Paris takes a foul shot during a basketball game. Supplied photo

By 2017 the Warrior Sports Club had swelled to almost 100 kids on travel teams competing in basketball, indoor soccer and softball. Students from the Oxford Christian Academy joined the club, so to speak, so they too could play competitive sports. It was time for the Warrior Sports Club to have its own clubhouse.

Parents located a vacant warehouse on Madison Ave. in Oxford, the former home of Lil’ Leapin’ Lizard Family Adventure Center. They began fundraising, leased the building, and the kids went to work scrubbing and painting. They built a basketball court from donated used flooring. Volunteers converted a kitchenette to a concession stand and built basic locker rooms. Old hoops were borrowed from Oxford Hills Middle School.

But running a hardscrabble volunteer organization for kids is not an easy existence. Annual operating expenses for the gym alone exceed $40,000. As a 501(C)(3) corporation, The Warrior Sports Club is tenuously surviving on business sponsorships and generous parent contributions.

“It’s important to keep this thing going,” said volunteer/parent/Board member Dan Hanson of South Paris. His daughter has aged out of the Warrior Sports Club but he continues to support it with his time. “Kids don’t have many options to keep busy. There aren’t travel teams for them after the age of 12. If our communities want to keep kids from getting into trouble, this is it.”

Kids pay seasonal memberships ranging from $80 – $120 to belong to the club, fees that barely cover the heavily discounted heating fuel provided by sponsor Everett Propane. Some parents pay extra to cover memberships for other kids who can’t afford the price. Ripley & Fletcher Ford has helped pay the lease through its sponsorship. Other local businesses donate big ticket items like pellet stoves and used vehicles that the club has auctioned off in fundraisers.

But frankly speaking, with the winter basketball season winding down The Warrior Sports Club needs a lifeline in the form of dedicated benefactors to continue serving the community.

Warrior snapshot

Twelve-year-old Cecille Richard of Oxford is a new Warrior. She just earned an award for the 2019-20 season’s “most improved player.” Her Coach Don “Wink” Winckler is amazed by her performance.

“Cecille is not what you’d call a natural athlete,” said Winckler the day after she received her award. “When she started she could barely hit the backboard. But she wanted to play and she wanted to learn.

Coach Don “Wink” Winckler recognizes Warrior Sports Club member Cecille Richard of Oxford as the club’s “most improved player” during the 2019-20 basketball season. Supplied photo

“We started with basic skills. I had her practice shooting with her weak arm. We worked on dribbling and she began learning the techniques of play. Her confidence in herself grew, just from practice. And as the season progressed, she went from the kid who couldn’t shoot to the player who could score baskets, game after game.”

“And Cecille comes into the building with a smile, every time,” added Tina Rowe of Oxford, director of the Warrior Sports Club’s incoming Board of Directors. “But it wasn’t just Wink, her entire team helped her grow. The older kids mentored her and included her in the game.”

“These kids look out for each other,” said Winckler, who has been a youth coach for close to 30 years and knows a thing or two about what makes teams successful. “They form close, supportive friendships here. They know when they come in this building they will learn and they will be held accountable.”

Tough Challenges

Kids have a finite amount of hours for gym time after school, homework and sleep, but the rent and heat have to be paid whether practice and games are going on or not. So Warrior Sports Club volunteers are using different tactics to keep the gym open more hours.

A lacrosse team uses it on Sundays for winter practice. Oxford Hills Christian Academy uses it for its volleyball team. A few adult groups reserve time for sports like pickleball. The club has a handshake deal with OHMS’s south campus that provides its students with a place for phys-ed class in exchange for use of the old basketball hoops. The club has experimented with “open gym” time to raise awareness and attract new members.

A scattered schedule of more participants doesn’t pay the bills and it puts more management responsibility on the shoulders of volunteer parents. But they are determined to find more users—making the gym available for private events, expanding to include more sports and adding membership options to accommodate younger athletes.

Member kids participate in fundraisers, whether it’s helping run yard sales or baking whoopie pies. They are responsible for taking care of the building, equipment, and the precious, used court floor.

Even with roughly 28 business sponsors, as more kids join The Warrior Sports Club the more needs to be done to keep it going. The padded basketball court is aged and worn, and if SAD 17 decides it needs to use the borrowed hoops elsewhere the club can’t immediately replace them. Referees and umpires must be paid to officiate games. The Board is determined to operate in the black.

The last thing Rowe expected when her daughter Tori joined the Warrior Sports Club last year was that she would find herself heading up the Board of Directors, but that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“I don’t want to see this facility close,” she said, brimming with emotion. “It’s too important. It’s a safe place for our kids to just come to have fun, to learn and to play.”

“When kids don’t make the school teams, without this gym they have no plan B,” said Winckler. “Here they have the chance to improve, to challenge themselves. They learn from each other. They have options to learn making good choices with no judgments.

“And we help incubate other competitive sports teams. Playing indoor soccer here keeps kids conditioned for their other sports during off season. Everyone benefits.”

“What is key,” added incoming Board Co-Director Clara Allen from Harrison. “Is that the Warrior Sports Club never says no to a player. Every kid is welcome.”

Learn more about the Warrior Sports Club on its website or visit its Facebook page. The club is looking for both supporters and kids to join.

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