Booster Shots

Operation Round Up strengthens local athletic programs

Several Samson Lady Tigers line up to practice their shooting with the aid of a basketball return machine. The machine was purchased with a donation from WEC’s Operation Round Up.

Eight enormous, intimidating banners of royal blue and yellow inside Samson High School’s gymnasium let opponents of the Lady Tigers basketball team know they face a daunting challenge.

Each sign commemorates a trip to the state Final Four by the Lady Tigers — all eight of them in this century. Four of those journeys ended in state championships, most recently in 2018. The 2020 to 2021 squad began its season 18 to 2, showing the potential for another banner year for the Lady Tigers.

Aiding this year’s team in the quest to continue its dominance is a tool called “The Gun,” a machine that quickly collects rebounds and feeds basketballs to players during practice. Without players having to chase their own rebounds, shooting drills operate much more efficiently.

This critical addition to the program was made possible by a $5,500 donation from Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s (WEC's) Operation Round Up (ORU) Charitable Foundation. The donation represents one of two significant commitments ORU recently made to local athletics programs. The other, a $4,000 check, allowed Houston County High School to build a new locker room for the girls' athletic programs and batting cages for the softball team.

“We at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative understand how valuable of a role athletics can play in a child’s development,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “Coaches become role models. Athletes learn discipline and teamwork through sports, which gives them valuable skills for the workforce and life. We’re proud to support athletics and other extracurricular activities through Operation Round Up.”

Building for the Future

When the Samson sports boosters approached Lady Tigers head coach Chad McKnight about improving the Tigers’ boys and girls basketball programs, he knew exactly what to say.

Members of the Samson High School faculty and sports booster club accept a $5,500 check from WEC’s Operation Round Up.

“I got to thinking about the one thing all these kids need to work on; it’s their shot,” says McKnight, who has won two state titles at Samson. “Nobody is perfect. I know people who have these machines. They say it’s the best thing you’ll ever invest in.”

The benefits of the basketball return machine are twofold. Not only does it increase the amount of shooting repetitions a player can have in a practice session, but it also improves the shot.

“The catcher sits up high, so it makes you put an arch on your shot,” McKnight says. “I’m constantly on these girls about putting a little arch on the shot.”

McKnight notes the machine has paid immediate dividends, but he knows the deeper effects will be felt in years to come.

“It’s a thing that’s going to benefit you more in the offseason,” he says. “On the weekends we’ll let them in the gym and take advantage of it away from practice, because you can only do so much with it in practice.”

Preparing a Foundation

At Houston County High School, Lady Lions volleyball and softball coach Daphine Hamm also sees the ORU donation as an investment into the future of her programs — especially in softball.

“Those batting cages will help our program because we had nowhere for the girls to practice the technique of their batting, opening up their hips and hitting off a tee,” she says. “It means so much to the program. We don’t have a lot of little kids building up their skills.”

Emma Lee lines up for a shot while using The Gun, a basketball return machine.

A lack of youth recreational teams in most eastern Houston County communities means many youth aren’t officially introduced to softball until they reach junior high school. That has hindered the success the Lady Lions have had on the diamond, Hamm says.

“The foundation hasn’t been here for a while since the recreation program went away in Columbia,” she says. “The kids don’t have anywhere to develop the skill, where other towns have many Little League programs. By the time athletes get to us, we’re teaching them how to field a ball, how to hit a ball. We are behind the 8 ball when we leave the gate.”

Hamm believes the batting cages will change that. She envisions working with younger children at the facility, which is constructed on the town of Columbia property.

Other Lady Lions athletics programs also are benefiting from the ORU donation.

The school’s Martha Nell Vann Rogers Gymnasium is almost five decades old, and space had become a premium there, says Houston County High Principal Lisa Towns. ORU funds helped maintenance staff convert an office and storage room into a new locker room, which the girls' athletics programs will use instead of a facility primarily devoted to physical education classes.

“The athletes feel like they are appreciated and they’re worthy,” Towns says. “Anything we get, we’re grateful. Wiregrass Electric helped us put up a storage building last year, which was much needed. I myself have become part of Operation Round Up just because I see what they do for the school.”