by Lisa Tome
A local sports program has youths looking up, and not just at the basketball net.
The Upward basketball program could just as easily be called heavenly hoops.
According to Mike Dohler, league director for Upward basketball, which is held at Rising Sun Church of the Nazarene, the sports program, now in its eighth year, continues to grow in popularity. Eight years ago, the league started with 78 youths turning out.
This year, there were 386 children ages kindergarten to eighth grade enrolled.
"Fifty percent are from Rising Sun," said Dohler. There are also children from Oxford, Pa., Bear, Del., Bel Air, North East, and Chesapeake City. Games are played on Saturdays beginning early in the morning and continuing until about 9 p.m. The league began playing in early January and will wrap up March 19.
All games are played at the church. Younger children play half court. Middle schoolers play the full court version.
But the focus is larger than basketball.
"We wanted to create a sports program that brings kids closer to Christ and teach life skills," said Dohler.
That includes instilling character traits such as courage, faith, and respect in the players and coaches. There is prayer before each game. All players receive equal playing time and those with disabilities are included. "We want more people to be one more step closer to God," said Dohler.
"It gets pretty full in here. On a Saturday, we will have 1,200-1,300 people come in. We have a snack shack and uniforms," said Dohler.
They also have a field of 50-60 cheerleaders who root for all the teams.
The cheerleaders are overseen by Dohler's wife, Beth. There are also 95 additional coaches, referees, and parents all of whom are volunteers.
Each team practices once a week in preparation for the games.
"This is very community and family driven," said Dohler. "We grow by about 80 kids a year. The older kids then become volunteers, refs, and coaches. They get service learning hours and are serving the church, serving the kids, and serving families."