It’s the calm before the storm.
J.T. Morgan paces between baskets at West Elementary, working to secure the league’s lowered goals before games get going. It’s just the first of many tasks Morgan will perform over the next eight hours, when the Wizards gym turns into part basketball league, part playground.
Morgan is in his fifth year running the Little Pioneer League. Under his direction, the participation has grown each year. And the games are starting to evolve as well, thanks to talent getting cultivated at an early age.
“When I took over, we started with one co-ed league for ages 4-7. Now we have enough to have individual girls and boys leagues,” said Morgan, who has close to 120 players in three leagues this season after starting with 45. “My favorite part of the league is seeing kids having fun playing basketball. We want to spark a love of the game for our players. I enjoy seeing what these kids go on to do at various schools.
“Our first group of 7-year-old players are now in sixth grade and they’re doing great things on the court for their schools.”
Morgan wears a referee shirt now, tasked with the endless job of teaching 4-year-olds the basic rules of basketball.
“You have to dribble. You can’t run with the ball,” Morgan politely reminds one player.
A defensive player has to be backed behind the half-court line, a big rule as the league doesn’t allow full-court pressure. Morgan is a walking rule book and usually gets to call every one of them -- many times a day.
“As referees, we do a lot of instruction as the game goes on,” said Morgan. “We instruct basic fundamentals to start building a skill base for them.”
Later, Morgan will be at the scorer’s table. Sometimes he runs the clock while West Elementary coaches Alli Mingle and Brayden Lewis take their turns with the whistles. Other times, Morgan is running the concession stand.
If there’s a job to be done, rest assure Morgan will be on it. When the day is done, the goals come down. They’ll await in a storage area for the next week, when players eagerly flock back to the court.
Years ago, children had to wait until age 8 to get into a basketball league. Former Lady Pioneer coach Erick Baird changed that in 2011, starting the Little Pioneer League for ages 5-7. When Baird was fired in 2014, he handed the keys to Morgan.
It was a tremendous show of trust in Morgan, then a 19-year-old. It was even more interesting that Morgan would inherit a league named for the Pioneers.
Morgan is homegrown, but he’s never been a Pioneer. Morgan honed his basketball skills at Boyd, scoring over 1,300 points as a Bronco. He played seven seasons under Chris Sullens, who has since taken over at Warren County.
Sullens was one of the first to recommend Morgan as an ideal candidate to take over. He already knew his drive, and isn’t shocked the league has thrived under his watch.
“It was an organization that cared about being built from the ground up,” said Sullens. “I knew J.T. would put effort into teaching young kids how to play while making it enjoyable for them.”
Parents are happy to watch their kids at a young age and they’re thrilled when a shot goes in. Sometimes, it’s the first points of their career.
Morgan was on hand to see his 6-year-old nephew Raylan Herman score last weekend. Raylan ran around after the game, making sure to point out to his family he scored a point.
“You actually had two points ... they count for two,” his dad reminded.
There’s always more to teach in the Little Pioneer League.