Unnoticed: the people behind Mt. Pleasant’s youth sports
Editor’s note: this is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
In Mt. Pleasant, there are many, many opportunities for youth to be involved in athletics. Some are focused on carefree fun, and some are more competitive. Either way, it takes many dedicated — and often unnoticed — people to bring these opportunities to the kids in Mt. Pleasant.
These are a few of those people.
RONNIE ASHTON HAS OFFERED HIS TIME in just about every sport Mt. Pleasant has to offer, teaching the basics that help not only his own children, but others as well.
Ashton has four children: Jordan is a freshman in college, Maison is a seventh grader, Isabel is a fifth grader and Aaiden is a second grader.
He helps and has helped with sports for all of them.
Ashton currently coaches the seventh-grade boys' and fifth-grade girls' basketball tournament teams, and he also coaches seventh-grade tackle football. He's often a little league coach, and he runs a weight-lifting program for seventh-grade boys and eighth-grade girls.
Last year, he was a Little League assistant coach: "I thought I was going to have a year off, but then (Little League Board President) Willy Amos asked me to help with his team, and I couldn't say no," he said.
Not that he really wants to.
"When I'm helping my own kids or other kids, I like seeing them grow up," Ashton said. "I try to instill in them respect and discipline, and it's a joy for me to work with the kids."
Ashton coached his son, along with Nick Lyon and Blake VandenBerg — the three seniors on Mt. Pleasant's 2012 state basketball championship-winning team — when they were young. Usually he has a kid on the team when he's coaching, but he keeps coaching in between them, too.
"I kind of knew it would go on for a while," Ashton said. "I knew it would be a long road. But I wanted them to be coached by someone who knew the game, and these days, you have to get started early. By the time you get to middle school or high school, the kids have all played on other teams. The earlier they learn the fundamentals, the better.
"Jordan was playing as soon as he could dribble a basketball or throw a football," he added. "He was a pretty good pitcher in youth baseball, too."
He started coaching basketball when Jordan started playing in third grade. For several years, he was also a varsity assistant football coach, again while Jordan was playing. He moved down to middle school when Maison started playing.
He coached JV and assisted varsity girls' basketball for a while, too, but when Maison started playing, he started coaching seventh-grade boys' basketball.
"I'm pretty much involved with everything around here," Ashton said. "Well, I don't coach soccer."
But he focuses most of his energy on one sport in particular: basketball.
"Basketball is my first love, so I always help out with that," he said.
He coaches a tournament team for each of his kids — as they grow older, he moves up with them.
Ashton will start another tournament team in the fall when Aaiden starts third grade.
"I've already had parents asking," Ashton said. "We'll put something out in the elementary schools and have a tryout. I'll probably take 12 kids."
Tournaments, such as the Easter weekend 3-on-3 basketball tournament that Ashton organized, fund the tournament teams that he coaches, so that there aren't any costs for the kids who play.
"Tournament fees go into the kids' uniforms and entries fees," he said. And that system is working out pretty well.
"You can see, we dress nice," he laughed. "It's a big thing for some kids, who don't have the money to play in AAU teams in Iowa City."
He doesn't want potential costs to keep kids from playing.
"I don't want to have to tell a kid no," he said. He gets enough of that at tryouts.
"I hate telling the kids no," he reiterated. "We keep a waiting list (for kids who don't make the team)."
According to the Mt. Pleasant varsity boys' basketball coach, Paul Rundquist, Ashton and people like him help get the kids in Mt. Pleasant excited about playing sports.
"Our kids benefit because we have parents and people in the community who are willing to work," Rundquist said. "The kids get excited, and that helps build school spirit. We have a leg up on a lot of communities. It's good for kids to be active, to learn what it means to be on a team.”
“As far as basketball goes, Ronnie Ashton has done a lot with tournament teams,” Rundquist added. “He’s extremely good with kids.”
Ashton, of course, likes to see his kids play basketball. But most of all, he just likes to see them play something.
“Sports keep kids involved in something positive,” Ashton said. “They get to hang out, have fun, and develop some skills. The more they play, the more they develop.
“As a youngster, I wished that I had some teams to play on, some tournaments to play in,” he added. “I couldn’t start basketball until seventh grade. We had peewee football — but in Texas, you play football as soon as you’re born.” Ashton is from Columbus, Texas. He played guard on the basketball team from seventh grade through high school. He really loved basketball, but no scholarships came along for a school he wanted to go to.
“IWC called and offered me a football scholarship,” he said. “I tried to play basketball too, but football was paying the bills and the coaches didn’t want me to do both. I played basketball my freshman year.”
But ultimately, the money won out.
With Jordan, Ashton saw him realize that dream of playing basketball for a scholarship.
“The state tournament opened a lot of college coaches’ eyes,” Ashton said.
Now Jordan has gone off to college, and so have with his former Mt. Pleasant High School classmates. But when they come back, they make sure to stop and talk to Ashton.
“I get feedback from the kids I work with — kids like Blake, Nick, Joey Vaughn and Ross Heitmeier,” Ashton said. “They say they wouldn’t have devoted so much to basketball if I hadn’t done the tournaments. The kids come back from school and thank me for putting in the time and effort.”
For Ashton, that kind of reaction makes all the time and effort worth it — although the state championship in basketball really helps.
“When they won that state title, Blake, Nick and Jordan all came up to me and we hugged, and we said, ‘This is what we’ve talked about for years.’”
After the tournament, Jordan received recognition as the all-tournament team captain and the Class 3A Player of the Year.
“I can’t explain how proud I am of him,” Ashton said. “We talked for so long about winning state, and then, on top of that, to be named Player of the Year….I’m the proudest dad. I’ve always had that confidence in him.”
OF COURSE, NOT EVERY KID will be part of a state championship-winning team. And only one gets named Player of the Year. Fortunately, there are more benefits to youth sports than that.
Gary Grunow, the director of the Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation Department, organizes sports through the city — sports that have a lower level of competition.
“We don’t even keep score (in most sports). The kids do — sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong,” Grunow said. “But we just want coaches to teach basic skills, keep the fun in the games and teach sportsmanship. At that age, if they have fun, they’ll keep coming back.”
There are many different programs for youth, in everything from swimming to soccer to football.
“These programs teach sportsmanship, help kids develop social skills and play with other kids,” Grunow said.
Kids can start as young as preschool in some programs.
“Most programs go through sixth grade, but there was nowhere for soccer players to go,” Grunow said.
Soccer doesn’t start in the school district until high school, so Grunow worked with (varsity girls’ soccer coach) Ed Chabal to start a co-ed soccer program for seventh and eighth graders.
Soccer is a big draw for the city programs because it covers the biggest age group, and it’s not a complicated sport to learn at that level.
“Every kid can play soccer — every kid can run and kick a ball,” Grunow said.
Football and cheerleading are also big, even though the city leagues do lose a few kids to the tackle football program.
Overall, across all programs, about 1,500 kids participate in the city’s youth sports in a year.
They’ve lost some kids in the programs over time, as tournament teams and year-round leagues have grown in popularity, but have maintained their numbers over the last couple of years.
“We have a really good working relationship with the schools,” Grunow said. “High school coaches do a lot of camps.”
Coaches like Rundquist, Chabal and Neil Schmitz (soccer) and Luci Wulfekuhle (volleyball) have each helped the city with camps.
Some sports aren’t covered by the city, but there are still coaches willing to take on youth programs in addition to their varsity teams — coaches like Anthony Blint.
Blint takes time out of his busy winter schedule to work with the town’s youngest wrestlers.
“Most of the young kids have so much energy, and they want to learn,” Blint said. “I’m giving back to a sport that was so enjoyable for myself. I want to pass that on to the kids.”
Blint — who started wresting at five years old, competed through high school at Mt. Pleasant and then had a few matches in college before getting injured — coaches the Mt. Pleasant youth wrestling club for kindergarten through sixth graders.
Occasionally, that program includes kids who aren’t quite in kindergarten yet, “usually the ones with older brothers,” Blint said.
Girls are welcome too, but not too many want to wrestle.
Youth wrestling starts before varsity and continues longer, but with long breaks during the season.
Blint took on the youth program at the same time as he became the varsity coach.
“Both as a parent and a coach, I see that sports get kids involved in social interaction,” he said. “They learn as they get older that there will be defeats in life, and you have to work on something to get better.”
Blint has a daughter, Abby, who is 9 and a son, Aiden, who is 3. Abby was never interested in wresting — she opted for dance — but Aiden is already getting involved.
“Aiden likes to coach in the stands,” Blint laughed.
While Blint has all the help he needs coaching — not only from Aiden, but also from assistants like Roger Pross — Grunow is often looking for some extra help.
For some of the city teams, it can be tough for Grunow to find coaches.
“It’s hard to find people to coach,” Grunow said. “Some parents are coaching two teams right now — they’re worth their weight in gold.
“You’re at a disadvantage if you know me,” he added. “If we’re friends, I’ll say, ‘By the way, you’re coaching a team.’”
The night before soccer started this spring, he was still looking for a couple coaches. When he comes up short, he coaches the teams himself.
“I’ve been playing sports my whole life,” he said. “I enjoy coaching kids and teaching kids — they still enjoy sports for the right reasons.”