. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

(Courtesy Photo)

Ty Houghtaling understands “church league” programs have a bit of a bad rap in sports circles.

With focus on both the physical and the spiritual, many people tend to picture the teams gathering to sing “Kumbaya” after the game and coaches intervening during it to make sure things don’t get too competitive.

But that’s a stereotype Houghtaling is working to break as league director of Seek 1st Sports, a youth football and basketball league based out of First Baptist Church.

“The idea is that sports are great, we ought to celebrate, we ought to work hard, but it’s not the highest priority in life,” Houghtaling says. “That there can be a good balance between the fun, the competition, and the development of youth sports and our spiritual needs as families.

“We try to incorporate the best of both of those things. And it’s been challenging, because Artesia is so competitive. We’re the City of Champions, and people want their kids to be involved in the best things possible. They want their kids to thrive and compete and succeed, and when they don’t see that competition or quality, they pull their kids out of things like that.”

Seek 1st was born of Houghtaling’s desire to create a church-based youth league with a strong focus on the sport. As a former athlete and coach in the Artesia Public Schools system, he saw areas of the city’s former church league – Upward – that could be improved.

“It was meeting a need, but it wasn’t meeting the larger need, so we kind of transitioned from that five years ago,” Houghtaling says. “We started Seek 1st Sports, which uses the scripture Matthew 6:33 – ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God.’”

The program is structured differently than most traditional youth leagues. One Monday-night practice is held each week of the season, during which all participating athletes gather.

“It’s not that different from what you would see at high school,” said Houghtaling. “If you think about the baseball team, the whole team – JV and varsity – are together at the start before they divide up. If you drive by the baseball park, you’ll see some kids in the cage, some kids on the infield taking ground balls, some kids in the outfield taking fly balls, but they’re all one team – the Artesia Bulldogs.

“We’ve become all one team – Seek 1st Sports. Every kid gets the same shirt, and in games, we just put on pull-over jerseys to distinguish teams. During that group practice, we do drills, we have multiple coaches at coaching stations. We do allow coaches to take the individual teams and practice an additional night of the week, but the thought is, we’re one team, and if one kid is getting better, another is getting better by competing with him.”

Rather than scheduling individual games each week throughout the season, the program holds its competitions in a tournament format on the final three Saturdays of the season.

“It kind of has a Hike It & Spike It feel to it, but there’s no down time, no having to sit around and wait two hours for your next game,” says Houghtaling. “We just play, back to back. The kids play hard, they get tired, but it’s been very successful so far.

“Each team gets anywhere from nine to 12 games, so it comes out the same as having a nine-week season and playing one game a week.”

Part of the reason Seek 1st uses that unique schedule is to make participation easier on families.

“We don’t play midweek games,” Houghtaling says. “I know parents want their kids to be involved, and some parents have their kids participating in multiple things, so running around to practices and games can be stressful.

“The way we’re set up, we aren’t practicing three nights a week and then having a game on a fourth night. If you can get really good, focused practices with really good drill work and teaching, you don’t need to do that, and we think it helps parents to not have to be running around crazy all week.”

Seek 1st is open to youth in grades K-5 and recently wrapped up a basketball season that saw around 100 children participating.

The K-1 group competes in fundamental contests rather than games, consisting of dribbling competitions, relays, and shooting contests. Grades 2-3 compete three-on-three on a short court, and grades 4-5 use the full court, four-on-four.

“The theory behind that is kids are going to get to touch the ball more, there’s more spacing on the floor, things like that,” Houghtaling says. “We also have a running clock, and that’s primarily for scheduling purposes.”

He stresses, however, that everything else about the competition is game-format.

“We call travels, carries, fouls, we substitute at buzzers, we keep score, you can pressure your guy in the backcourt, and if you can steal the ball and go score, steal it and go score,” Houghtaling says. “If a team wins 62-0, it’s 62-0 and that’s what happened. We’re not going to shy away from the competition aspect.

“If kids are playing hard, we want to celebrate that. We’re not going to say, ‘Oh, you guys are playing too good, back off a little. We allow the kids to thrive, so if a kid’s really good, there’s no holding them back. We don’t sub them out or say ‘quit stealing,’ we let them go.”

That’s the sort of competitive nature Houghtaling developed as a Bulldog, and as a former APS coach, he also teaches young athletes according to what they’ll see as they advance through the school programs.

“We spend a lot of time on foundation fundamental skills at our practices,” he says. “We do the things the Artesia way, and I have experience in that. I know what Coach (Rex) Henderson is doing at the high school, I know what Coach (Michael) Mondragon and Coach (Jeff) Houghtaling are doing with their basketball programs, so I can use their same terminology and language, because I know what it is.

“We can teach the concepts and plays these kids are going to be running in junior high and high school.”

Seek 1st has additionally benefited over the years from coaches who were also formerly with the APS, but Houghtaling says even novice coaches improve quickly due to the way the league is structured.

“A residual effect has been the benefit to the coaches that help us,” he says. “Some people have played the sport, they know the sport, but when you get out there with kids and they’re not listening, running around, it can be hard. So the way we’re organized, we’ve been very blessed, because our coaches want every team, not just their team, to be successful. And with everybody helping each other out, they learn how to manage kids, how to talk to kids, how to talk to parents, how to run a practice, and I hope as they go on to other sports, they’re better coaches for it.”

Seek 1st currently only consists of football and basketball, with the next football season anticipated to start in July and culminate by the end of September.

“We did that last year so we wouldn’t overlap much with the city flag and tackle leagues, so kids can do both if they want,” Houghtaling says. “It was pretty successful, especially since we’re the only league that does kindergarten, and for elementary kids, there’s not a lot that goes on in July.”

Houghtaling says he hopes at some point to be able to add volleyball to the league, as well.
As for now, however, he plans to continue growing Seek 1st Sports and contributing to both the spiritual and healthy competition needs of Artesia’s youth.

“People who’ve tried it, they see what we’re trying to do,” he says. “Some have stuck with us, some haven’t, and that’s people’s prerogative. But I think everybody who’s tried it knows we teach good foundation fundamental skills and we give kids room to thrive.

“There are other ways of doing things and they’re great, and some people prefer them. But we’re here if people are looking for an alternative.”