TARPON SPRINGS – Whether his players are on or off the court, Tarpon Springs High basketball coach Jerry Woodka wants to make sure that they have a good grip on the right priorities.
Tarpon High has an annual alumni basketball game, which will be held this year Saturday, Nov. 2, 6 to 9 p.m., at the school. In conjunction with that, Woodka has initiated a mentoring program similar to Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
Woodka brings back about 40 former students who don’t have to be basketball players to participate in the event.
“It’s grown fairly large so this year I started the [the program], where I have my former players in contact with my new players. They are checking on their grades, their attendance, how’s practice going. Do they need any mentoring or tutoring? Do they need any fundraising? Trying to be a big brother to my kids,” Woodka said.
The program establishes a new bond between the athletes because he is not the one who is always telling them what to do.
“I noticed a lot of the kids that are athletes, they are so busy with their practice schedule, game schedules and school work, they don’t have a lot of time with their friends. Besides their parents, I don’t know how many people are watching them,” Woodka said.
The players get a chance to learn to be successful. Not skipping practice. Not skipping classes.
Pushing themselves and their teammates.
“I think with my kids seeing and hearing it from a different person than the coach, they are taking it to heart,” Woodka said.
This marks the 10th year that Woodka has had the alumni game, a fundraiser that also includes concessions and cheerleaders.
“We have a huge big thing in the gym. We play 6 or 7 10-minute games of basketball. Just kind of promoting my program and introducing the kids that made the team that week, and all the students,” Woodka said.
Playing basketball at Fort Myers High School and Edison College helped shape Woodka’s philosophies. He derives satisfaction from knowing that his players will be friends and family forever and that the door is always open to them.
“Growing up myself, I would probably say thank God that I had the coaches I did. Because they steered me in the right path and showed me the opportunities that were out there as a student athlete. They gave me the chance to go to college to play and continue my career. Not only am I giving back what the school system did for me, I’m building the relationships I have with all my former high school and college coaches,” Woodka said.
Looking ahead to this season, Woodka said his squad’s starting lineup this year includes four juniors and one senior.
“We’re fairly young on the varsity, even though we have a little bit of experience,” he said.
Point guard J.T. Aguilar, who graduated last season, produced about 70 percent of the team’s offense, Woodka said.
“That’s a major spot for us to fill this year,” he said.
Key returning players are guard Maurice Turner, a senior; center Mitchell Wilcox, a junior; wing player Scottie James, a junior; and forward Israel Atkins, a sophomore.
“We have got a bit of size. We are about 6-5, 6-5, 6-4,” he said.
The Spongers will have a tipoff classic Nov.14-15, with Dunedin High, Steinbrenner High, Calvary Christian and Tarpon Springs participating.
This marks Woodka’s third stint as basketball coach, having held the position from 1997-2001, 2002-2005 and 2011 until now.
“The main reason I got out is my own children were playing travel sports,” he said. “I just didn’t have the time to coach at the high school level and make the commitment that’s needed.”
Now he has the time, and he looks forward to coaching his youngest son next year – and teaching, too.
“In over my 25 years, this is the best school I ever taught at,” Woodka said. “The student body is phenomenal. The parents of our students are great. The staff here is great. As a parent of a child who graduated last year, the education that the kids are getting here is phenomenal. I feel very safe as a teacher here. I felt very safe having my child go to school here. Tarpon is a great community.”