“Always be basketball players,” says Genille Kroeker, coach of the Niagara Rangers house league basketball program, as 31 enthusiastic athletes gather around her at centre court just before the conclusion of a Saturday session.
The kids, who range in ages from five to 11 years old, take that as their cue to move into the triple threat position. Legs apart, knees spread and ball cradled in both hands to one side, the classic basketball stance signals they are ready to shoot, dribble or pass.
“When they are on the court, my expectation is that they behave like ballers for the full duration of practice,” Kroeker says. “That way, when they show up to their local school tryout, they are used to staying in that role and focusing for long periods of time.”
The Virgil resident’s son Matthew is in Grade 4 at Crossroads Public School. When she discovered the house league program that runs out of that school’s gym didn’t have a coach this year, Kroeker stepped in to ensure that it could continue.
The former member of the Brock Badgers women’s basketball team (1998 to 2002) is an incredible asset for the Rangers to have. Kroeker spent the past three years running a similar program in Pelham, where the Panthers basketball program has become a force to be reckoned with across the province over the past few years.
She names her coaching mentor as Mihai Raducanu, Pelham’s director of player development. The native of Romania played for the Canadian junior national team and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers. He is also the founder of No Limit Performance Basketball and has worked with numerous high level basketball players across Canada and the USA.
“I learned so much from him,” Kroeker tells The Local, a sister publication of ThoroldToday. “His focus is not just on skills development, but character development, and that’s what I believe in. He was so valuable to me in my development as a coach.”
In previous years the Rangers operated the house league in two separate sessions — one for Grades 1 and 2, the other for Grades 3 to 6. To accommodate the DSBN supply teacher’s schedule, Kroeker convinced Rangers founder Jennifer Caughill to bring all of this year’s 40-plus participants together for the weekly 90-minute sessions.
With the help of a group of volunteers, the indefatigable Kroeker has no problem running a smooth session with absolutely no down time. She leads the large group this Saturday through dribbling and passing drills, then shooting drills, followed by lay-ups and finally, wraps things up with scrimmage games.
Kroeker moves from player to player, most of whom she knows by name, offering support, encouragement and instruction. She’s a master at court-side manner.
Lori and Barry Smith travel from Thorold so their 11-year-old son Gunner can participate every Saturday.
“She knows every player, she’s dedicated,” says Lori. “She has a way with her words of getting the kids’ attention. She communicates with the parents. She cares, she means it, she’s in it for the kids.”
It’s Gunner’s first year in the Rangers program. It’s given the Grade 6 student confidence to speak up for himself, and to try out for his school’s volleyball program. Barry says their son is a good sleeper, but eagerly wakes up early every Saturday to get to the 9 a.m. session.
“Genille goes step-by-step,” Lori adds. “She makes them know if they want to get there, they have to go here first. She knows that it takes time, and she drills that into them. And she sees things through. When she says she’s going to do something, she’s going to do it.”
Stratford native Kroeker didn’t start playing basketball until she was 14 years old. While attending Stratford Northwestern High School she was encouraged to come out for the school team by teacher Martin Ritsma, now the mayor of the town.
“I wouldn’t be here without my coaches,” says Kroeker. “Starting so late, I was playing catch-up, and he moved me along so fast.”
Kroeker was spotted by long-time Brock women’s coach Chris Critelli at a tournament in her final year of high school. She enrolled at Brock and not only made the team but was named rookie of the year. In her fourth year she played with the Badgers in the national university championship.
Basketball has been a big part of her life since she first picked up the rock. It’s clear in watching her lead the session that the physical education and history major lives and breathes the sport.
Kroeker laments that many kids today aren’t as resilient as those of the past. The pandemic may have contributed somewhat to that. She’s pleased to see so many coming to the gym each week and staying active.
“I think that kids need to be in a position where they have to learn how to do something that is hard,” Kroeker says. “Learning how to do a layup is hard, especially for a little Grade 2 kid. And if they’re in a game and they lose, they need to learn how to lose graciously. They need to be put into situations where they deal with difficulty and disappointment. It’s our job to teach them how to get up and try again.”
She’s committed to running the program for at least two more years, when Matthew will be in Grade 6. Kroeker anticipates that the age groups will once again be separated in the future to enable her and the volunteers to spend more time with each player. It will also allow her to work on more game-specific skills for the older group.
Kroeker is quick to deflect some of the success of the Rangers program away from herself.
“This can’t run without great parent volunteers,” she says. “They come consistently every week to help out, and they build a rapport with the kids. They build the relationships, and I play the role of the instructor.”
The 31 players there this Saturday are certainly buying into Kroeker’s instruction methods. Her positive reinforcement and gentle words of advice or correction are openly accepted. The drills and games feel like fun for each and every one of them.
As the practice session wraps up, Kroeker enlists the parent volunteers to help choose the Rangers’ On-Point Athletes of the Day, each of whom is handed a mini-pylon in congratulations. All the participants gather around to support their peers, then they end the day by “clapping it out of the gym” with a deafening roar.
They can’t wait to be back next Saturday.
Contact Jennifer Caughill at [email protected] for information about the program.