As it has for 65 years, the future of Oak Harbor basketball can be found at the local high school gymnasium each Saturday morning.
The Oak Harbor junior program was started by Mert Waller, then the head OHHS basketball coach, in the mid-1950s. Most years since then, the league, generally under the guidance of the boys and girls high school basketball coaching staffs, has introduced the sport to the youth of North Whidbey.
Current Oak Harbor High School girls coach Jon Atkins is in his fourth year as the program director.
“I really want to build a passion for basketball in Oak Harbor,” he said. “That’s my dream; it’s my project, giving kids an opportunity to play.”
If youth basketball isn’t offered in Oak Harbor, he said, some children wouldn’t play, using the excuse that they don’t want to drive off the island to find a league.
“They can’t use that excuse now,” he said.
The program was withering when Atkins took over; it now has 207 kids and 26 teams.
“The first year there were only 15 girls, now there are 80,” he said.
The growth has caused one problem — lack of gym space for the teams to practice, according to Atkins.
The school district, especially Superintendent Lance Gibbon and Assistant Superintendent Steve King, are doing their best to help Atkins: “They have been great partners to work with.”
The program is divided into four divisions: 4- and 5-year-olds; 6- and 7-year-olds; 8- and 9-year-olds; and 10- and 11-year-olds.
The two youngest divisions are co-ed and play on lowered hoops.
Members of the high school boys and girls teams officiate the games and run the score clocks.
Atkins said it is a “big deal” that the youngsters see the high school players they watch on Friday nights out on Saturdays sharing their passion for basketball.
All of the coaches are volunteers; most are parents or relatives of the players.
Atkins said it is hard to get consistent, solid help running the program from year to year.
“We get good people involved, then they keep deploying.”
He does receive support from home. His wife Danielle helps in any way she can; last Saturday she was staffing the concession stand.
Danielle (Bratt) Atkins is a graduate of Oak Harbor High School and the youth basketball program.
“I grew up playing basketball here; my dad was my coach,” she said. “When I was in high school, I reffed games. We want to keep the program going, getting as many kids exposed to basketball as we can.”
The husband and wife duo of Matt and Robyn (Hartman) Bainbridge, former Oak Harbor High School athletes, coach their sons’ two teams.
“I want to do my part,” Robyn Bainbridge said. “My dad did it for me, and I do it for my kids and other kids; it’s good for the community.”
Parent Shawn Boyer said he enrolled his son in the league to “learn teamwork, meet new friends and get out of the house and run around.”
Several youngsters in the 4/5 league revealed what they like about playing basketball for the first time.
Emmitt Weston, Niko Gomez and Nyjah Wooley all said “to make goals.”
Defensive-minded Xander Beaman said “to block people.”
For Sophie Chappell, it is the chance to “play against other people” and “run around.”
Christopher Klenke explained the proper decorum after making a basket: “You can high-five, but no kisses.”