Youth recreation sports for the Madras Aquatic Center Recreation District have been increasing steadily, and even through a very chaotic year for the aquatic center, sports saw a huge increase in participation over the previous year.
One constant has stayed the same with these major changes to the MACRD. Director of Recreation and Aquatics Gregg Markwardt has worked extremely hard to create a friendly, recreation-heavy community.
Markwardt, 39, was hired in 2015 to be a recreation coordinator and work with the Bean Foundation to provide out-of-water activities. With a heavy background in aquatics, Markwardt soon became the aquatics manager, overseeing the programming side of things. Their first foray into youth sports came when the Kiwanis and Lions youth basketball program asked the MACRD to handle the logistics of the program, while the clubs stayed involved.
That would be the start of Markwardt and the MACRD in providing and running several recreation activities.
Since 2015, there has been a total of 2,430 kids participating in youth recreation sports. The program has included the start of flag football, tackle football, fall soccer, club volleyball, baseball, and adult basketball.
The program also established running races, like the Mudslinger and Canyon Crawl. A total of 12 new programs, which have included 130 volunteer coaches.
Along with Markwardt, the former MAC executive director, Joe McHaney, was instrumental in getting the youth program started and on a trajectory of growth.
"Our youth coaches and volunteers that give up their Saturdays and a couple days during the week, really make our programs successful," Markwardt said. "Without volunteers, these programs would be really hard to sustain. I tip my hat to our community and the volunteers that play an instrumental part for us doing what we do. It just shows a lot of people are involved and want to keep youth sports local, where kids are playing in our own community, representing our community."
Markwardt also points out the economic effect of the youth programs on the community.
"There is an economic impact to this," said Markwardt. "Those local dollars people spend to participate in our local programs. That money is put back into programs, but it also creates jobs for people to be able to referee and be part of these programs.
"It has been more than just playing sports. Kids don't have to travel to Bend or Redmond to play," he said. "I take pride in the fact that so many kids nowadays can play in Jefferson County. So, hopefully, the longevity and stability will continue. Hopefully, we will see kids continue at the middle school and high school level, and take pride it what we have here."
"We are Madras, a small community, but I think there are a lot of people who appreciate that and want to support localization," said Markwardt. "There are things we can make happen and if people are interested, we can give it a shot. The community is going to steer what we provide for them; whether it is with a ball or class, we are open to any ideas. Right now we are small, so we are trying, but it is really up to them. We are willing to put in the work and see what happens."
The jump in youth sports participation has been a welcome element to what has otherwise been a rough, transitionall year at the MAC. A new executive director, Jim Weyermann, has come on board following the dismissal of McHaney. Plus, the swimming program lost coaches, staff, and the maintenance needed to repair the locker rooms.
Despite all those obstacles, youth sports has increased tremendously since 2018. Youth basketball increased 17%, augmented by the addition of first and second grade players. Youth soccer increased an amazing 26%, and flag football saw an increase of 12%. The still-new tackle football program is thought to be part of the reason more kids are playing tackle football at in the middle school.
"We just stayed the course," Markwardt said about the difficult year. "Times get tough and there are always peaks and valleys with anything in life. A job is no different. I really wanted to put in a lot of time and hours because those young kids don't have a voice. They just want to play and we try not to let the situations that we are in dictate if those kids are going to be able to play. I really focused on getting through this last year and say, we are the MAC, there is something going on and I wanted to do everything in my power to provide those opportunities."
"I had some great referees to help keep things going and that is a main goal — to provide these things even when things get tough," he said. "I also want to make things sustainable. There is a cost, but I think we do a reasonable job as far as pricing structures. You are going to see ebbs and flows sometimes, and if you have a sustainable model, you can withstand that without fluctuating rates."
"It is all about the experience, so we try to provide the best equipment. When kids show up for soccer, you have Bow Nets, actual nets. We're Madras, but we can have really nice stuff, which I believe elevates confidence and the experience. We paint all our own fields, so things look professional and kids want to play on a nice field. So that is what we try and do."
With the increase in recreation sports, the MACRD and Markwardt want to keep things going strong with the programs currently available. They would be willing to add a few new programs if the community wants them, but are really focused on maintaining the programs they have now.
"With the transition of the past year, we are just trying to stick to what we have been doing, do it well and keeps things going," said Markwardt. "We will look at growing and expanding if things are reasonable, but our focus has been mainly on the programs we have established, building numbers, and sharpen the sword every season. A lot of these programs have only been around a couple years."
"We don't want 30 programs that aren't run very well," he said. "I would rather have 15 programs that are run really well. Then you can start to branch out because you have had all those learning situations."
It's been five years years since the hiring of Markwardt and the start of expanding recreation sports in Jefferson County. The results and stats, as well as community support, speak for themselves, and now kids and parents are reaping the rewards of the hard work and dedication Markwardt and the recreation staff have put in.
"We were able to get to this point by just creating opportunity," said Markwardt, using football as an example. "We launched flag football in fall 2015 because there really wasn't much opportunity to play until the middle school level. It became very popular and people asked it we could also run flag football in the spring. After two years of that, we added fifth and sixth grade tackle football. Kids would participate through the Bend Parks and Rec programs and a lot of parents wanted home games."
"I talked to parents about starting a league with Sisters, Culver, La Pine Gilchrest, Warm Springs, to be able to provide football in the community," he said. "Each community would host a home game. We were able to partner with those other groups to have football here."
"For kids to get experience, we decided on eight-man football and last year was the first year we saw the kids that participated in the very first flag football games now playing at the high school level. The knowledge they had and just the way they played, they were way more prepared to play at the next level. We have seen our numbers grow because of that."
Markwardt is also a coach for the Madras football varsity program and made sure programs were one unit. From first grade through high school, Markwardt works hard to create connections, allowing everyone to be on the same page.
"One of the things that is really important is having relationships with the coaches at the high school level," said Markwardt. "Flag football all the way to high school, and same with basketball, that starts at a very young age. We try and keep things consistent with those programs. Club volleyball and basketball is another great example of how coaches think these youth programs are an extension of the high school programs. That model has worked really well and we want to continue moving forward."
Markwardt and the MACRD have put in a lot of hours committed to creating recreation sports in Jefferson County, but they also understand that none of this would be possible without the hard work and dedication of volunteers.
"The biggest thing is the MACRD started with a pool and we work really hard with the pool and programs," said Markwardt. "We have gotten to the point where we can have a lot of out-of-water activities for everyone. It comes down to the kids having fun, parents that sign them up, the volunteer coaches; I can't say enough about them, I really can't. This is a community event and, yes, I am the head of it, but without support, I don't know. It really is a community thing."
"I come to work every day and enjoy it, but when I see 100 kids playing basketball, having a good time, laughing, that is the reason why I do. I like to think I am having a positive impact on people's lives just by providing these opportunities," he said.
"Another big part of this is bringing the community together," Markwardt pointed out. "You are building relationships and a community atmosphere, breaking down barriers, where people get to know each other. It is very important and everyone is so busy, so this provides an opportunity to meet your neighbors, new people and take pride in it as a whole."
Registration for youth sports through the Madras Aquatic Center Recreation District is now open.
Fifth and sixth grade tackle and youth flag football registration will end July 16. Cost is $168 for MAC members, $185 for in-district members, and $200 for out-of-district members. Youth flag football is for ages 4-6 and 7-9.
Youth soccer registration ends Aug. 12, for ages 4-6, 7-9, 10-12, and 13-14. The cost is $58 for MAC members, $54 in-district members and $71 for out-of-district members.
You can register online at macrecdistrict.com. For more information, call the aquatic center at 541-475-4253.
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