A UCLA-like basketball dynasty is in the making at one Waynedale elementary school.
Basketball clearly is king at Maplewood Elementary School, with the school’s students winning four city championships in the last seven years. Since 2011, the school’s team has been in the city finals seven times – winning it four times, and, coming in as runner-up three times.
This year, the elementary hoopsters beat Croninger Elementary School, 26-21 on February 15 in the gym at Wayne High School to take the title. Even more special, the Wayne principal talked to the youngsters in the locker room before the game, and the Wayne High School varsity basketball squad watched the entire championship game from the stands.
The architect of the championship runs? A youthful Physical Education teacher named Zach Welklin, who just started at Maplewood in the 2014-15 school year, but, has already built a perennial winner on the court.
Welklin, age 26, graduated from Bishop Dwenger in 2010, and the University of Saint Francis in 2014. He played hoops at both schools, serving as St. Francis’ shooting guard during his playing days there.
Welklin started as a coach at Maplewood — 20200 Maplewood Road — because his mother was a teacher there. At the same time, he was a basketball player at St. Francis. She mentioned to him that their school’s PE teacher was retiring the same year he was graduating from the University of St. Francis.
Welklin applied and got the vacant PE job.
During their six-game season, the 13-student teams play other elementary schools from around the Fort Wayne Community School system. Much like the national NCAA college basketball tournament in March, schools are seeded in the annual tournament according to their season records. Top seeds receive byes and don’t have to play the first round.
But, Welklin said, playing on the team is about more than just basketball for his students.
“I also do this as a behavior incentive,” Welklin said. “If they don’t turn in their homework one week, they’ll sit out a game. And, I promise you, they’ll never sit out again.”
Additionally, the season-long play molds kids into better players, he said.
“It’s amazing to see the growth,” Welklin said. “Before I coach them, they’ve only played mostly on the playground. But, by the end of the year, they’re a complete basketball player.”
“(And) it keeps them out of trouble, keeps them busy,” Welklin continued. “It’s something for them to be proud of. If anything, they can use these skills to play in middle school, high school, maybe even college someday.
“I’m more than just a coach, I’m really a life mentor.”
Two members of this year’s team said the feeling of bringing a title back to their school was a proud moment for them.
“It felt good to be a fifth grader and win the championship for the school,” said 11-year-old Jamari Pearson, who is a fifth grader at Maplewood. “It was awesome!” added Trell Hogue, a nine-year-old third grader.
Welklin said this year’s title came as kind of a surprise, as some of his better players from years past had moved on to middle school.
“This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for us,” Welklin said. “We’re scrappy and little, but we wanted it more in the end.”
In the long run, for Welklin, he wants the games and all the championships to be about more than just winning basketball games, though.
“I’m intense, but I’m positive,” Welklin said. “These kids don’t need negative criticism, just positive redirection. I want this to be positive and fun for them.”