The Cortland youth basketball league may have been overhauled, but the name honors someone who has been involved in the program for decades.
Traditionally, each of the six elementary school in Cortland would field its own basketball team and play each other. But with the closing of the Virgil and Parker elementary schools last spring, the Cortland Youth Bureau spearheaded the creation of the John Tobin Youth Basketball League, which will feature teams from Cortland and surrounding communities like Homer, Groton, Tully, Dryden, Marathon and McGraw.
Practices began earlier this month, and games are set to begin in Jauary at Cortland High School, the county gym and the Cortland YMCA and YWCA. The first games and welcome ceremony will be held at SUNY Cortland’s Lusk Field House Jan. 4.
Tobin, who volunteered and coached at various levels for football, basketball and baseball, appreciated the nod but said it wasn’t necessary.
“I was never one for honors,” Tobin said. “It’s more about giving kids an opportunity to play. Growing up I was lucky to have people who gave me opportunities and I try to give back as much as I can.”
For Cortland varsity boys’ basketball coach Jeremy Milligan, who also helps organize the league, Tobin was a positive influence on himself and others growing up.
“John has been an instrumental member of this community for many decades and coached many different youth sports — from youth all the way up to varsity,” Milligan said. “For myself, John was a youth coach of mine in several sports, and as I went to junior high school, John got involved in junior high coaching and JV and varsity as well.
“He was a mentor to hundreds of young boys and girls over the years.”
The league features three tiers, including a clinic level for first and second graders.
There’s also the NCAA level for third and fourth graders and an NBA and WNBA level for fifth- and sixthgraders. The NCAA level is more about instruction, while the WNBA/ NBA level is more competitive, although it’s still not all about wins and losses.
“The mission that we have is to teach kids whether or not they have experience and improve their skills,” Youth Bureau recreation supervisor Andrea Piedigrossi said. “Then the kids who have never played, we teach them the game from the basics on.”
In part because of the addition of the formal league for third and fourth graders, participation in Cortland has risen slightly from previous years. Cortland is expecting to field one third-grade team, two fourth-grade teams, two fifth-grade teams and three sixth-grade teams for the boys, along with one third/fourth-grade team, a fifth-grade team and two sixth-grade teams for the girls.
The teams will be finalized in early December, but preliminary numbers have a total of 51 teams from the seven communities competing come Jan. 4.
“Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect … but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response,” Cortland Youth Bureau director John McNerney said. “We’ve had great participation numbers in Cortland. We have about 160 boys and girls signed up for the program, and other programs are excited to join a more formal league.”
Instead of the traditional practice times immediately after school in the afternoon, the students have been practicing in the evening. Milligan said the hope was to get more people involved in coaching, and it has worked.
“It’s been great so far,” Milligan said. “At many levels, we have a head coach and an assistant coach, and some levels we have vacancies for assistant coaches but we’re hoping there will be additional parents that can step in and lend a hand after the first couple weeks of practices.”
The program gives youth players another chance to play basketball, but also to learn life skills like responsibility and sportsmanship.
Milligan sees the program as an opportunity to lay the foundation and framework for local basketball programs at higher levels.
“For me, selfishly, I really wanted to … allow more youth in the community to get a basketball in their hands,” Milligan said. “You want them to have good, positive role models in their lives and teach them the fundamentals, like how to dribble, pass, pivot and shoot.”
But most importantly, it’s about the kids having fun.
“At the end of the year we hope to go up to each kid and ask ‘Did your skills get better?’ and get a yes answer, and more importantly ask ‘Did you have fun?’ and get a yes answer,” McNerney said. “It’s not about the wins and losses. It’s making sure those two things are accomplished.”