Every Saturday for the past eight weeks, the gymnasium at First Baptist Church has been transformed. Dozens of volunteers took the room from a casual place for friends to gather during a potluck to a legitimate basketball stadium, complete with lights, a professional sound system, a hopping snack bar and rows of seats filled with cheering fans.

This whole set up is for the kids playing basketball through Upward Sports, a Christian-centered sports league for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. It’s the largest Christian sports club in the world. Lodi’s branch is the largest on the West Coast, out of 2,100 clubs nationwide. Pastor Andrew Maines, who directs the whole endeavor, is enthusiastic about using sports as a vehicle to teach Christian lifeskills to children.

“We’re Christian leaders who love sports and love God, and we want to share that message,” he said. “We’re not trying to undermine Lodi Parks and Recreation. We’re different.”

Lodi’s branch of Upward Sports began in 2008 when Lodi dad Eric Larson saw the league in another city and invited a few members of First Baptist Church to a conference to learn more. That included Ken Johnson, a Stockton firefighter who immediately stepped up as basketball commissioner for the Lodi league.

“The speaker said that 90 percent of the kids we coach won’t go on to play after high school. So what do we want to teach these kids? That stuck with me,” he said.

In the first year, the group rented space in local gymnasiums for about 80 kids.

This season, 841 cheerleaders and basketball players competed each weekend at First Baptist Church and Temple Baptist Church under the direction of 190 coaches. Weekly practices for each time are held at both locations along with Vinewood Community Church. Their $95 registration fee covers the uniform, too.

Coaches and commissioners are big on positivity and sharing the court among the kids with great skills and the players who are still developing their skills. But in between the basketball drills, coaches drop in lessons on Christian virtues like forgiveness and perseverance. Then they reward their players when they see those virtues on the court.

Those same lessons can seep into the stands, too. Johnson calls it the circle of affirmation. If a coach is negative with the players, those players will feel that energy and spread it to the crowd, who might get to hyped up, leaving everyone feeling badly. But if a coach is uplifting with the team, the players feel more confident and help boost the mood in the room.

In the long run, Johnson and other coaches hope Upward can bring more people into the church.

“The front doors can be a big barrier to people who aren’t Christians. But if we can get them through those doors and into the gym for eight weeks, that breaks down the barrier for them to come in on a Sunday,” said Johnson.

As a program, Upward relies on a lot of logistics. There are no tryouts, but each child is evaluated on his or her skills ahead of each season. Then they are sorted into teams based on age, height and skill level to ensure balanced, fair teams. During each game, the younger kids don colored wristbands. For the kids, it’s so they know who to guard. But the coaches use the wristbands as a way to match each child to an opposing player that’s about as advanced as they are.

Coaches use a smartphone app to manage how much time each player spends on the court. Each time only has eight players to make sure the roster rotates often.

Parents like Upward because it’s comfortable, clean, with a good concession stand and everything runs on time, Johnson said.

The church-based nature of the program doesn’t exclude non-Christians. Chad Joseph, a Lodi parent, watched his 8-year-old son Jack Joseph play on Saturday.

“We’re not affiliated with any religion, so I don’t actually think about it much. It’s a good influence because it’s all focused on sports, and the value of being a good teammate,” he said. Joseph has seen Jack grow in confidence, and love seeing his son laughing and getting along with kids he might never have met at school.

Just to the sides of the court, cheerleaders jump, shout and lift pom-poms under the careful leadership of Apryl Von Groningen. Some cheerleaders play basketball, too, or started as a basketball player before switching to cheer.

The rosters of both the cheer teams and the basketball teams include handicapped players. Some cheer from wheelchairs, while a few of the players have autism or a prosthetic leg. That doesn’t present a problem in Upward, said Maines.

“We have a place for everyone, and that place isn’t the bench,” he said.

Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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