Community effort, community pride

Friendsville Optimist Club spearheads youth sports league as labor of love

The motivation is simple: Bill and Beth Pyle and their cohorts in the Friendsville Optimist Club love the children.

That motivation has led to endless hours of work, planning and playing in their community through the Friendsville Optimist League, a youth sports program.

“When you see a kindergartener’s face the first time they make a basket, it’s awesome, said Beth Pyle. “Coaching and cheering them on -- we just love working with kids.”

The Optimist Club got involved in youth sports to fill a niche, said the Pyles, one that is still being filled today. Beth and Bill’s own children went through the program and now enjoy coming back and helping the younger children.

“Our son, Cody, is 11, but he loves to help my kindergarteners learn about basketball. It’s just a great group of people in the club. We’ve made a lot of friends,” said Beth.

“The atmosphere around our program, particularly the basketball program, is one of encouragement and teaching. There is a competitive nature anytime you have sports but the emphasis here is placed on teaching the kids to play sports rather than what the final score is,” Bill Pyle said. “What I’ve been told is some folks get frustrated with some of the other programs and come down here and think it’s refreshing.”

Bill said the cost is not as expensive as it is in other leagues. “We don’t charge parents to come in and watch. Because we are sponsored by the Optimist Club, that allows us to keep costs down. You pay for the jersey, trophy and party after the season is over. It’s not a money-making venture.”

Sweat-equity is involved for the Optimists, however. The program is funded through money made on concessions sales, which goes mainly to pay for referees. “That way we keep costs low and affordable,” said Beth.

Bill is president of the Optimist Club, and Beth is the treasurer/secretary. Bill estimates that there are about 400 children who are touched through the organization’s youth sports program annually, and many of those individuals come from middle- to low-income homes.

That’s how it got started, he said, to fill a niche for children who couldn’t afford to go to other area leagues.

This niche also serves kids who might not be able to play on school teams, for a variety of reasons. While it doesn’t rule out children who play school sports, the kids who aren’t on their school teams are given first priority on getting on an Optimist league team.

“It gives them the opportunity to play a sport,” said Beth.

“It lets the kids participate,” added Bill.

Once winter and spring sports get busy, however, the Optimists club members are in full swing. “Because of practice space, we limit the basketball program to 24 teams, typically 10 kids per team, so we cap it at 240 kids. We usually don’t have a problem filling that up. Those kids not involved in school ball go through the draft process first and then we take school ball players and divide them up as evenly as possibly among the teams so you don’t have them overly weighted with one team of athletes and one team of non-athletes,” Bill said.

The Pyles have been officers in the club for five years but they first got involved in 1999 with their daughter, Katie. The program, however, dates back way before they got involved, Beth said. “It was going on long before us,” she said, starting in the mid- to late 1970s.

“I think the club has really taken off in the past seven to 10 years. We’ve got kids who come from as far away as Lenoir City and from as far away as Walland,” she said. “The basketball program draws a lot of them.”

Bill said the Optimist Club offers basketball, football through Parks and Rec, coach-pitch T-ball, youth slow pitch softball and cheerleading.

Beth said she and her husband participate as coaches as well. “He’s coached football and basketball and T-ball. My daughter and I coach a kindergarten basketball team. She’s 14 and on the high school basketball team,” she said.

Bill said the family-oriented aspect of the Optimist Club programs draws people. “It’s not unusual for an older teen child to help coach a sibling’s team once they get beyond the age of participating,” he said. “The basketball program is divided up into three age categories - kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth grade and sixth through eighth grade.”

Once the children get out of eighth grade, there aren’t any other leagues. “But a lot of them want to come back and help and watch,” said Bill.

While Beth and Bill said they take a couple weeks off each June, when football season starts, like all the other Optimist Club members, they are back at it.

Beth Pyle said a lot of work goes into concessions. “I very rarely see a whole game by the time I finish running concessions,” she said. “There are a lot of hours put into it.”

Bill singled out a few individuals among the many who help with the organization. “Alvin and Sam Jeanette put untold hours into the basketball program,” Bill said. “David and Peggy Melhorn head up the baseball, softball and T-ball teams. We couldn’t do any of it without them.”

Wayne McCloud is another vice president and is over the football program. “He and his wife, Sharon, do a lot to keep that flowing smoothly, and that’s a lot of work,” Bill said.

Terry Gaylor is the organization’s midget head football coach, and he has been in the program 20 years. “His sons have come and gone, but he’s continued to coach. His youngest son, Brandon, who is in his 20s, now is starting coaching with us and has been involved.

“It just grows,” Bill said. “Evidently we’re making a good impression (on the kids) along the way.”

Bill said the youngsters learn important lessons playing sports.

“You learn more than just how to play a game, you learn about life. Teamwork is important in any and everything you do. It teaches you how to cooperate and compromise and how to take responsibility for a role. We each have our own roles in life.”

In addition, Bill said organized sports give children an opportunity to get off the couch and out from in front of the Wii or PlayStation. “It’s amazing the kind of shape some of these kids are in,” Bill said. “When you have a 7 year old come out for football, and he weighs in at more than 120 pounds, there’s some need for a healthy lifestyle there,” he said. “You see an opportunity for these kids to get more healthy.”

Bill said that in some cases the Optimist Club volunteers get some of the children when they are 4 and 5 years old and some stay with the program until they are 13 and 14. “We have the opportunity to positively influence the direction they go in their life as far as being able to cooperate with others, take responsibility for something and being able to pursue a goal,” he said. “Some kids don’t have lot of direction, and this may be one opportunity that gets things to click with them. They can see the importance of keeping an eye on the score and that goal and can translate that momentum to their school work.”

Beth said the Optimist Club members have fun with the children. “But it’s a lot of hard work,” she said.

Both Bill and Beth said they enjoy seeing the youngsters experience a lot of firsts. “When you see a kid go up the middle on their first football game and score on a 30-yard run, you can’t imagine the look on that child’s face. When you have people in the stands screaming and clapping -- win, lose or draw -- that kid’s day has been made,” he said.

Beth said watching the cheerleaders grow up is just as fun. “You have little 5-year-old cheerleaders working hard to learn the cheers. We’ve had as many as 400 people at a football game, and they work hard to do what they need to participate in homecoming,” she said. “We crown a homecoming queen in each age group, and they all dress to the nines.”

At homecoming, the girls get a crown and rose and are escorted by the football players. “The boys will be sweaty and muddy, and they are as far apart as they can get with their arms locked,” Bill said.

Beth praised parents and coaches for their efforts. “They just have a ball with it. It’s trying, and I won’t say we don’t ever complain. We’re worn out, but the end result is worth it,” she said. “It’s fun to see the joy and excitement on a kid’s face.”

Having an elementary school that used to be a high school is an added plus. The games are played at Friendsville Elementary School, and the Pyles say Principal Ellen Jenkins is always extremely supportive.

“She has been very helpful. Without her cooperation, we wouldn’t have a football field or a gym,” Beth said. “There are so many people involved in this that there is no possible way to name everyone, but it truly is a community effort. We’re lucky in Friendsville to have the people we have.”

Bill said the recipe for the Friendsville Optimist Club’s sports program’s success has been simple. “It takes individuals who love kids to make something like this successful,” he said.

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