By Marty Farmer
DJ Steward is a long, athletic and fluid swingman who plays on the 7th grade basketball team at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. Luke Fitzgerald is a big combo guard with excellent court vision on the 8th grade team Ascension. Phil Saleh is a talented 6-foot-2 freshman at Oak Park-River Forest High School, who plans on trying out for the Huskies this winter.
These three very promising players, along with several others including Lucas Kolovitz from St. Giles and Charlie Hoehne from Brooks, recently participated in the Wolfpack School of Basketball fall camps held at St. Luke in River Forest. Wolfpack standouts often excel at the high school level.
Wolfpack alumni now playing high school basketball locally include: Mike Smith and Mike Ballard (Fenwick). Ballard holds the all-time record for consecutive three-pointers made (12) at Wolfpack. Tom Planek, a star forward at Fenwick who graduated last spring, also attended Wolfpack camps.
Current OPRF players Elliot Greffin, Brendan Toye, Dan Bevan and Zarious Brinner also participated in the Wolfpack School of Basketball.
Run by President/Program Manager of the Wolfpack School of Basketball Matt Kelly, along with Vice President of the Wolfpack School of Basketball Dave Carta, the fall camps consist of four levels: Cub Intro to Basketball (1st thru 4th grade), Cub of the Den (4th & 5th grade), Jr. King of the Den (6th & 7th grade) and King of the Den (8th & 9th grade).
"At our introductory level ages, we're just trying to create an interest and enjoyment of the game of basketball," Kelly said. "As the players get older, there's more emphasis on skill development through our programs, camps and travel teams. Some of these kids, you'll definitely be seeing their names in the next few years making an impact on the local high school basketball scene."
The camps offer a mix of shooting drills and other fundamentals work along with a series of games matching players together randomly. During Wolfpack camps, every player is highly involved with each activity.
"We want our players get the drill work and skill development needed to make them feel comfortable playing basketball," added Kelly, who has extensive experience coaching at the high school and middle school levels. "We really focus on keeping each camper involved and moving. A lot of traditional camps involve a lot of scrimmaging where there are some players sitting on the sidelines for extended periods of time. That's not how we run our camps. Every kid has a ball in his hand, and we make sure class instruction and drills are proportionate to our numbers."
Reflective of its name, the Wolfpack School of Basketball also emphasizes togetherness.
"We definitely strive for a sense of community and a family vibe within our program," Kelly said. "Wolfpack Basketball is a great way for kids than normally might not cross paths in the community to get to know each other.
"One of the best parts of our camps is to see how on the first day the kids sit with their familiar groups. By the last day of camp, everybody is sitting together and joking around. That's pretty cool."
Courtesy of the aforementioned assorted pickup games and varied drills, campers enjoy a nice balance of on-court fun and competition. And there are some perks to performing well.
"Our campers have two different ways of winning awards," Kelly said. "The first way is to win our 'King of the Den,' which basically involves a series of shooting competitions. The second way to win is through accumulating wins in team competition. We randomly draw teams for everybody. It's kind of like a grade point average. If your team wins on a given night, that's 4.0 points; if you finish second, you earn 3.0. Whichever three players have the highest averages at the end of 12 sessions of camp, they are our 'Top Dog' winners."
All the winners receive a pair of LeBron James Nike Soldier VIII basketball shoes.
"I love Wolfpack, I like the competition," said Stewart, who won both the Jr. King of the Den and best 'Top Dog' score in his group this fall. "Playing basketball at Brooks, you have to work hard and learn about the game. That's also the way Wolfpack [School of Basketball] is run."
Steward's mother, Katicha Jackson, also praises the camp, which has quickly established a reputation around the Chicagoland area as a premier offering for aspiring basketball players.
"DJ heard about Wolfpack through his friends who spoke highly of the program," Jackson said. "It's just a really well-organized program. DJ decided to give it a shot and it's the best thing he could have done for him regarding basketball."
Saleh, who played on the OPRF freshmen football team this fall, hopes to join the Huskies on the hardwood as well. His Wolfpack School of Basketball experience will only help his high school hoops dreams.
"I've been with Wolfpack since the 7th grade and it has been great," said Saleh, who also plays on one of the 10 Wolfpack travel teams. "The coaches have taught me a lot and developed every aspect of my game. They are great coaches. I think my strengths are posting up and shooting, but I need to improve my ball handling."
For Fitzgerald, whose friends with Saleh, his wish list en route to becoming a better ballplayer is just the opposite.
"I need to work on my shooting," Fitzgerald said. "I'm excited for the season [at Ascension] and also playing on travel teams with Wolfpack."
Whether it's camps, travel teams, coaches clinics or personal training, Wolfpack offers something for virtually every young player.
The high school coaches clinic, which included visits from highly regarded head basketball coaches like Rick Malnati of Fenwick and Matt Maloney of OPRF, along with visits from St. Patrick, Immaculate Conception and Montini coaches, provided campers a glimpse of basketball at the next level.
"I think the coaches clinic might be the best program we offer," Kelly said. "Each session includes some shooting and ball handling drills to warm up and then we turn it over to the coaches. It's great for the players because they learn about underlying factors during high school try outs like hustle, eye contact, getting in the front of the line. They also can ask similar questions to each coach to hear how each coach handles different matters which is interesting. Regardless of which high school they attend, it's beneficial to hear about different schools' basketball programs"
While many campers are from the Oak Park and River Forest area (and obviously headed to OPRF or Fenwick for high school), several campers will attend other schools like Elmwood Park, St. Ignatius or St. Patrick.
Carlos Izurieta, whose son Jonathan attended one of the fall camps, was very impressed with Carta and the entire coaching staff.
"It is a very good basketball academy," he said. "This is the second time my son has done it and he loves it. The instruction is very personalized. We're very pleased with Wolfpack and would recommend it to anybody."
For more information about the Wolfpack School of Basketball, visit wolfpackschoolofbasketball.com or call/text (708) 669-9762.
Coach Kelly's email is: firstname.lastname@example.org; Coach Carta's email: email@example.com.
"It's an exciting, busy time of the year for Wolfpack Basketball," Kelly said. "If people want to find out more about us, I suggest they check out our website and get on our mailing list. We're also on Facebook."
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