Incoming Gervais freshman Celi Vasquez beckons to a group of kids surrounding her under a basketball hoop at the gymnasium behind the middle school. She briefly instructs them in a drill on how to close in on a shooter and box them out after the shot, and then the kids get to work.
Up and down the gymnasium, members of the Gervais varsity girls basketball team work with teams of children, roughly a dozen kids each, who follow their instructions with relative ease. The girls act as an extension of varsity head coach Kyle Buse, who has been running the Gervais Hoop Camp for four years and has been involved with youth basketball in the area for even longer.
"When I first started here in Gervais, they were third-graders, and they had come to some camps and clinics," Buse said.
Six years later, the campers have become the coaches, effortlessly running the drills that they themselves have become intimately familiar with after many seasons at the youth level, middle school level and now the high school level.
"This is only the fourth year of hoop camp, but this drill now is a good example of being able to say, 'Hey we're going to run this drill, and they know it,'" Buse said. "It's the same thing we run at the varsity level and these kids know it, so they're coming in and learning the same language."
Buse helped plant these seeds long ago when the incoming freshman class was not even 10 years old. When they hit fifth grade and began playing on tournament teams together, they learned to play together as a unit as they moved up grade levels. Every year in the summer they'd come back to Hoop Camp to reinforce the lessons they had been practicing during the season, and the results are ready to pay off.
Instead of having inexperienced players entering the high school program, Buse is now coaching 14- and 15-year-old freshmen who know how to play and are ready to play, and he's eager to see what they can do out on the court.
"We'll have probably four freshmen on varsity. Five with a swinger," Buse said. "We have all these freshmen coming in. They're here at camp and they've been at camp for years, and that's a special thing to see them grow."
Vasquez's sister Isabel was the varsity team's lone freshman last year, and had the traditional ups and downs that come with playing against high school seniors in top-tier programs around the region. This year's freshman class will experience those same ups and downs, but will be doing so together as a cohesive unit.
They've been getting their sneak preview of the coming season during the June summer league, where the Gervais girls went 19-11-1 during a densely-packed, three-week schedule. Those games have been against some of the top teams in the state from the 4A classification on down to the 1A level. That, along with the occasional practice against the Cougars' returning senior class, is putting the Gervais freshmen in a strong position to hit the ground running when the regular season begins in November.
"That helps them to practice on a daily basis against older players who are mature and stronger," Buse said. "That's one of those things that I hope they'll learn from is the experience that the seniors can teach these freshmen so they can carry it with them the next four years."
Those five seniors will be pivotal in helping the team transition to the new class of incoming players. Though the Cougars graduated perennial all-conference guard Andrea Villegas, the team lost just two players last season and brings in nine to the program this year. Gervais is excited to build on the success of last year's team that won two league playoff games to make a surprise run to the state playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"They want to build on that state tournament run and the feeling of that playoff run we had last year," Buse said. "They're excited to come back and willing to put in the work on the leadership side of the game."
Senior wing Karina Ramos has been taking on much of the on-court leadership responsibilities that Villegas had last year and has shown tremendous growth and confidence in her ability to lead the team and run plays during the summer schedule.
"She's starting to really understand our offense. When we need a basket, she knows which play to run. That leadership is coming with her," Buse said. "The five seniors that we're going to have coming back, they know what that leadership means and they're going to lead by example."
With the summer league over and Gervais Hoop Camp in the rearview mirror, the girls will go their separate ways for now, ready to come back in force after the conclusion of the fall season to bring the accumulated knowledge and experience from this past June and years of practice together to continue lifting the Gervais program to new heights.
"They're varsity ready after the summer," Buse. "It's really exciting to know we'll have five seniors and four or five freshmen coming in, with Bella right there in the middle as a sophomore. We'll be solid for the next four or five years."