BATAVIA – For youth football players at Batavia's Junior Bulldog camp, the chance to play alongside their Friday night heroes is special, especially considering they learn to play the game they love from the reigning Class 6A state champions.
For the 17th year in a row, the program hosted the weeklong camp, gathering at Prairie Path Park with Batavia youth football players from first through seventh grade. Campers from first to sixth grade play touch football and compete in drills, while seventh graders prepare for tackle football.
The idea for the camp originated from a friend of head coach Dennis Piron, as he saw the camp being put on at another high school, but Piron never thought the camp would grow the way it has.
“It's amazing how sincerely our players interact with the kids in the community,” Piron said. “They don't [participate] grudgingly. I don't have to beg kids to come help…it's an unusual sight seeing the boys interacting with third and fourth graders, and having fun doing it.”
Usually the varsity players are the ones being coached, but for this week, the roles switched, as they each had a small team of campers, and would lead them through drills and mentor them.
While the camp is centered on developing fundamentals and growing as a young player, the opportunity to go swimming or take in a movie with the team are just a few of several highlights for campers.
For third-year camper Joe Kleist, scrimmaging with the team and swimming are his favorite activities. Kleist participates in the Batavia Youth Football program and plays a mix of quarterback and wide receiver.
“I'm learning how to roll back and throw a nice spiral,” he said. “I'll take away from this camp how the [older players] play the game and practice.”
Above all, there's something about the camp that brings not only the participants, but former players year after year.
First-year assistant football coach Mike Theriault coached in the Junior Bulldog camp as a player several years ago. Because of the experience, he knows how big of an impact the camp has on the young players.
“It's really evolved to almost every kid in Batavia does [the camp] or wants to,” he said. “Most of the kids who are coaching now in high school, were in this camp when they were young. It's cool to see [how the roles have changed].”
Players such as sophomore middle linebacker Conner Stejskal remembers looking up to the older kids helping him throughout his time participating.
“We try to help out as much as we can with the community,” he said. “It's nice to see them grow throughout the whole week, and seeing how they learn from mistakes in game situations.”
The impact is surely noticed by parents watching their kids compete and interact with the older players, especially to Heather DeBaun. Her son, Max DeBaun, has participated in the camp for three years.
“He likes the interaction with the high school football players,” she said. “They do a great job with not only teaching them football, but [making it] a community event. He participated last summer as well, and got to interact with the team who won the state championship…he was so excited.”
With a large community presence and a state title to boot, expectations for the Batavia program are at an all-time high, but for this week, the focus remained on the campers.
“We'll definitely keep doing the program as long as we can,” DeBaun said. “They've done a great job organizing the camp and activities.”