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Rolling Along: Roller Hockey Program Thrives in Peachtree Corners

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Norcross Roller Hockey
Norcross Roller Hockey’s MS Rink Rats vs. MS Gladiators Game at a January game (Photo by Paul Peterson, Visit his profile for more information, www.flickr.com/people/paulpete)

They’re small by comparison, but scrappy. And quite skilled.

High school team vs. Norcross Roller Hockey coaches (Courtesy NRH)

The Norcross Roller Hockey Program (NRH) at Pinckneyville Park on the Peachtree Corners-Norcross boundary may not gather in the thousands of youths and adults who take part in area football, baseball and recreational soccer programs, but interest is growing, said league officials, even if more than a few local people have no idea the program exists.

What they lack in size, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. The games are like a fluid dance with a hockey stick accompaniment as players move rhythmically up and down the court on their inline skates, constantly in motion, deftly passing (and stealing) the hard plastic puck and taking shots at a hyper-focused goalie.

Mark and Dianne Ogden

It’s a tight-knit and supportive bunch that gathers each week at a well-appointed rink that boosters think is likely the finest outdoor roller hockey facility in the Southeast.

“We are in excess of 100 players right now, “said John Hendry, President of the parent Peachtree Booster Club, which also includes a soccer program. “We have been as high as 250 people (in a non-COVID year), so it’s varied between 100 and 250 over the years.”

Norcross Roller Hockey’s MS Rink Rats vs. MS Gladiators Game at a January game
(Photos by Paul Peterson, Visit his profile for more information, www.flickr.com/people/paulpete)

“A lot of it is letting people know we’re here,” he added. Agreeing with that, Mark Ogden said, “It was tough getting the word out. We always found that a lot of people didn’t know about the program. Either they weren’t close to it or we didn’t do a good enough job of publicizing it. You’re always in competition with other sports.” Ogden presided over NRH for nearly a decade and stepped away after his kids aged out of the sport.

Norcross Roller Hockey’s MS Rink Rats vs. MS Gladiators Game at a January game
(Photos by Paul Peterson, Visit his profile for more information, www.flickr.com/people/paulpete)

A northern game moves south

Ogden gets a huge credit for advancing the program that kicked off in 1975 at the behest of northern transplants who wanted to bring their favorite sport south. Games — originally it was only an adult league — were held in the gym at Peachtree Elementary School, later moving to a concrete slab in Pinckneyville Park after Gwinnett County built it in the early 1990s.

Longtime officials praise Ogden for lobbying the county to construct the current rink around 2006. The $1.6 million project included a sport court surface designed specifically for inline hockey, new dasher boards, quality lighting, an upgraded scoreboard and cooling fans for hot-weather games.

Today the operation is helmed by hockey vice president Nick Sally, who said NRH is still upping its game, having improved its website and increasing its social media presence. He brings a lot of cred, having grown up playing roller hockey and swatting the hard plastic puck in college and semi-pro play later.

Sally’s still hip-deep involved, playing in the adult program as well as coaching. His youngsters are in the youth division, which starts with 4 to 6-year-olds and extends upward to the youth hockey program encompassing categories from 8 and younger to 18 and under.

Skill and character

The kids obviously want to win, but Sally is quick to point out that “we try to make it very family friendly, which fits right into the Peachtree Corners vibe. We have proud parents cheering for the kids, but nobody is yelling and screaming at each other.”

The program puts a strong emphasis on recreation coupled with skill and character development, he and others said.

Three of the players on the Gladiators youth team that lost on a 10-9 shootout that January Saturday nevertheless displayed a pumped and positive vibe. To a person, they signal they’ve developed greatly and are by no means done with that process.

“We put a lot of effort into the game and we may have lost, but we played pretty well,” said Ben Vanden Bos. He said he wants to shift to ice hockey at some point and got interested after seeing his uncle coach a team.

“I think I’ve become a lot more athletic playing roller hockey,” he explained. “It is harder than a lot of different sports. There are more mechanics with shooting and developing strength through skating.”

Teammate Eduardo Avila-Hinton Junior also has his gaze on the ice and said, in addition to developing character and motor skills, he’s been able to connect and make new friends. And he says it’s helped take his mind off teenaged stress (he’s 13) and the overall events of the year when he gets lost in midst of a contest.

And then there are the lessons that are not as apparent on the surface as are the toned muscles and rocket like passing and puck-handling. “It’s taught me to be more humble,” said Timothy Hendry, “and not act arrogant about how I play or how I am with sports. It’s also teamwork.”

Norcross Roller Hockey coach Mike Bergeson (Courtesy NRH)

“It’s a natural progression,” John Hendry, father of Timothy, said of the desire to glide and slide on ice. “As the kids get into the teenage years, a lot of them are moving up to ice. It’s a loss for us but it’s a win for the sport.”

Norcross Roller Hockey coach Jim Asztalos
(Courtesy NRH)

On the plus side

He does point out the roller form of the sport has some distinct advantages over and differences from the iced version — even if they are close cousins.

Body checking is not allowed, and that means fewer injuries. Positions aren’t divided into offensive and defensive ranks, which results in a fluid, rhythmic motion up and down the court, making a game more of an endurance contest and a showcase for teamwork. Players are four to a team with a goalie instead of five.

And, said Hendry, there’s a financial factor. The league costs about $100 for a three-month season.

“I know how expensive other sports can be,” he said, running well into the hundreds of dollars “and this gives them the same benefit at a much lower cost.” It’s also a quick learn, he said. Kids step onto the play surface with no experience and within three weeks, “they’re skating and handling the puck and able to take part in the game.”

Ogden maintains a strong affinity for the game, even though he’s gotten out of active involvement with the league and booster club, and he thinks back to when he got involved. His oldest began playing after a neighboring friend took up the sport, then the other two joined in.

“I just fell in love with it,” he said.

As have literally successive generations. Youngsters playing in the program are following in the footsteps, well, skates of parents and even grandparents who also played.

With other roller hockey rinks having opened in places such as Snellville and Peachtree City and the local kids traveling to play teams there, the future looks busier.

“I see no sign of it going away anytime soon,” said Hendry. “I’ve been involved with this program for ten years and it’s definitely growing.”

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Education

15 Norcross High School Players Sign to College Football Teams

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Norcross High School Football celebrated a great signing day this past Wednesday. Congratulations to all the young men signing their National Letters of Intent to continue their education and football careers! As we could not have Signing Day in person, please view the 2021 Virtual National College Signing Day video.

2021 Norcross Football Signees

Zion Alexander – East Tennessee State University

Quinton Bradford– Concord University

Jahni Clarke – Valparaiso University

Jalen Garner – University of Houston

D’Andre Golden– Keiser University

Trey Goodman– Austin Peay University

Josh Graham– Morgan State University

Micah Green – Concord University

Xavier Herndon– University of Pikeville

Kaleb Jackson– Georgia Military College

Mason Kaplan– Valparaiso University

Kamren Lark– Morgan State University

Zemetrick Larry- Georgia Military College

Tripp Miller– University of West Georgia

Lovelle Williams– Mars Hill University

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Faith

Peachtree Corners Teams Bring Faith to Sports

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pcbx basketball
Photos by George Hunter.

A quick inbound pass whistles by, just out of reach of a defender. The ball’s grabbed, then quickly bounced — passed to another lanky youngster on the Tarheels (not the North Carolina college team, but youngsters on the cusp of being teenagers) basketball squad.

“Shoot it!” yells a teammate.

One quick pivot and a turnaround jumper later, the ball swishes cleanly through the net.
Such is a microcosm of youth hoops November through February at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church (PCBC), which plays host to a highly regarded and mainly intermural sports program that gathers in as many as 1,000 youngsters and adults annually. That includes boys’ and girls’ basketball (ages 7 to 12), with nearly a workday’s-worth of games playing out on a particularly chilly January Saturday.

As is the case with any such program, the scene is familiar. Players, parents and coaches shouting into the echoing cavern of the gym, the squeak of sneakers and the rhythmic ‘thunk, thunk’ of ball meeting hardwood.

Sit in the bleachers for a while, however, and the differences between it and some other programs manifest. No trash talk. No angry disputing of referee calls. Coaches who encourage instead of demean.

‘A good atmosphere’

“It’s the first time I’ve been here,” said Dan Marschke, a Walton County resident, in between yelling in-game encouragement to his grandson. “I think it’s a good atmosphere.”

Unfortunately, the “feel” has changed a bit this year with a pandemic continuing to rage. As COVID-19 gained steam this past spring, adult basketball, tee-ball, and machine pitch baseball were shut down. The program returned with summer camps and precautions in place going forward.

As a faith-based organization, creating a team from youngsters, sometimes less than perfectly disciplined and lacking basketball experience, happens on the parallel tracks of skill improvement plus character / spiritual development. The recreational benefits of sports and fun are emphasized over winning and losing, said league coordinator Billy Sowell. Bringing players closer to Christ — pumping up that faith muscle, so to speak — is also a prime priority.

At PCBC, that takes the form of a devotional done in the course of weekly practice and prayer before games. Coaches, parents and kids all seem to appreciate the connection.

“I get to be closer to God,” is how 13-year-old Grayson McCollum put it, referring to those 15-minute practice devotionals. “He gave me everything that I am blessed with today so I want to be as close as I can.”

Not only has his faith strengthened, he indicated, but the experience has fostered a more even temperament. Cooperation, building each other up and taking responsibility are the default, not anger and blame shifting.

Peachtree Corners City Manager Brian Johnson, who coaches the Blue Devils team his 12-year-old Elias plays on, backs up that mindset. “The general benefit is learning teamwork and sportsmanship and how to be a good winner and a good loser,” he said, “and that practice makes perfect. It takes time to get better.” He added that personal development happens more than at the player level.

At the end of the season, Johnson said, “I feel like I’ve learned things, not just the kids. For me it’s a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher.”

As an adjunct to that notion, he’s mindful that how he handles a bad referee call or tough loss sets an example.

And sometimes playing in a structured environment can lead to an inflection point or alteration in direction. Tarheels player and coaches’ son Michael Brown Jr. said the experience has led to a changed view on sports.

“I always thought soccer was going to be my thing, but basketball has proven to be a really fun sport,” he said emphatically.

He said that a winter holiday made longer by concerns over COVID-19 posed a challenge. “We came back from break and you could definitely tell that we had been gone for a while,” Brown Jr. said. That rustiness led into some rehabilitative drilling on the basics.

Pandemic concerns have also made another kind of dent in the program. Sowell says four teams had been “quarantined” as of January 26, sitting out of games and practices. Two of the teams involved were exposed to coaches who have tested positive. The other two stemmed from cases where a player had tested positive within two days of playing a game. Three of the teams had returned as of January 26, with the other set to come back the following week.

He said that a couple of games and several practices had been canceled.

COVID and other concerns notwithstanding, parents seem very happy with the sports ministry.

“Everybody knows about the program here,” said Karen McCollum, the mother of 13-year-old Grayson and 12-year-old brother Maddox. “We believe highly in keeping our kids involved in sports and keeping them focused. “They’ve learned so much from the coaches and the players.”

That’s like music to Sowell’s ears and, to him, is reflective of the program’s laser focus on faith. “We want to use sports as a way to introduce the love of Jesus,” he said, making it clear to the youngsters “that God gave them the abilities to play and have fun and that’s what we want to focus on.”

Onward and upward

Programs such as PCBC’s occupy an expanding role in the constellation of youth recreational sports.
South Carolina-based Upward Sports partners with churches to help them begin and maintain sports ministries, with more than 1,500 such congregations on its roster last year. Their Partner Engagement Manager, Drew Provence, said the goal is to help local congregations connect with their surrounding communities through the gospel.

“It’s a universal language,” is how Provence put it. “We’ve seen that 95% of all people interact with sports in some fashion.” And, he said, churches can use the outreach and that universal language as a way to attract new members to the flock.

Officials with the local church said that’s a story that’s repeatedly played out over the years, as players and families from the community at-large make the jump from setting foot on the property for a first time to becoming staunch members of the congregation.

Not just for kids

Sowell said that roughly 10% of those involved in their sports programs are church members.

Capitalizing on that broad base to draw from, he said, the men’s basketball program has become very competitive with several former professional and high-profile college players among the ranks.

“That’s why I started the 35-and-over league for players who want to be more recreational than competitive,” he said.

That recreational and developmental focus is on full display in the winter Saturday youth basketball program, said Tarheels coach Michael Brown Sr. A former school basketball player himself, Brown said he’s “thrilled” that his son has also fallen in love with the sport.

“It’s a great thing for a father and a son or a father and a daughter. I really enjoy working with the kids. We’ve got a great community here and a lot of talent and if I can just offer a little guidance and motivation, it’s great.”

Girls allowed — and encouraged

That same dynamic applies in the church’s girls’ basketball league, which takes over the gym earlier on Saturday before the boys storm the court. So said Perry McWilliams, a church staffer who helps direct a girls’ team dubbed the Cardinals. He shares coaching duties with a family friend and his sister, and he said taking on that role after spending some time coaching boys’ squads has been a revelatory experience.

“This is my first year of coaching a team of young ladies and you would think they wouldn’t be as rowdy as the boys are — and that’s definitely not the case,” he said. “It’s an athletic bunch and they need just as much redirection as the boys do. That’s been very interesting. Kids will be kids, no matter what.”

That direction is valuable and well worth it, said Johnson, despite many demands during his day. “I think that with growing up playing structured sports into college and having great coaches and parents to support me, I’d like to think I have something of value to add to my team and the league,” Johnson said. “I believe that’s worth a little extra time.”

McWilliams said he was surprised that some of the youngsters weren’t familiar with such elemental basketball phraseology as “traveling” and “triple double” and needed considerable drilling on the ins and outs of defensive play. Building on a firm foundation, he noted, there have been vast improvements since the season’s outset, not the least of which has been fewer air balls.

McCollum said her boys and his teammates also have needed some on-court and courtside corralling. “There are always times when they don’t want to do something; they don’t want to go to practice or something like that. But we firmly believe that when you start something, you finish it,” she said. “Once they’re there, they love it, and it’s much better than sitting in front of an electronic device.”

Sowell wants to grow participation in the programs that they have now, but that’s proving difficult in one area.

With nearby Cornerstone Christian Academy and PCBC’s own preschool using the gym during the day and practical limitations on practice — having 11-year-olds doing shooting drills at midnight is far from optimal — he said they’re capped at roughly 220 hoops participants on board. Sowell said he hates having to have a waiting list and to be turning away eager kids.

He has hopes that Cornerstone will eventually construct its own gym, giving PCBC more wiggle room and increasing participation.

No matter what 2021 and the years beyond might bring, Sowell has the overall goal firmly in his sights — making the Bible, and in particular one verse — a linchpin of the sports ministry.

“Our verse that we use is I Corinthians 9:25,” he said. From a modern Bible translation, it goes thusly: “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. “

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Education

11th Annual Norcross Blue Devils Run

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blue devils mascot
Blue Devil Mascot at 2020 Blue Devils Run. Photos provided by Katie Gartin.

The annual Norcross Blue Devils run is the cross country/track and field fundraiser for Norcross High School (NHS). It provides funding for both teams and allows all students to participate no matter their financial status.

Young participants in 2020 Blue Devils Run

This year’s race will be held on Saturday, February 6, at NHS. The 5K Run/Walk will begin at 8:30 a.m. It is $25 per person, with a price increase if you register after January 30. Phantom runners can also support by signing up for $25 and receive a t-shirt. The event will take place rain or shin, with an awards ceremony following the 5K. Katie Gartin is the race director, as well as a Peachtree Corners resident and NHS student.

2020 Blue Devils 5K

Awards:

5K: Overall Winner (Male & Female);  1st, 2nd and 3rd place for each age division (Male & Female)

Age Groups: 7 & Under; 8-10; 11-14; 15-19; 20-29; 30-39; 40-49; 50 and up

Raffle entry for all runners: Raffle prizes from local companies, anyone registered can enter in the drawing. Favorites include Trader Joe’s seasonal goodie bag and gift cards to local restaurants.  

*Short-sleeved T-shirts guaranteed to all who preregister*

For more information and to register, go to this link.

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