Teacher builds young spirits with music, basketball

By Wayne Bryan Published January 5, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Lyndsey Kelly attended school at Benton Harmony Grove and played her junior season of basketball with the only Lady Cardinals squad to make it to the state basketball tournament. After attending Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Kelly returned to Harmony Grove as a teacher and coach. In fact, her group of first- through fourth-graders is one of the main attractions for Cardinals home games. Known as the Little Dribblers, the youngsters receive instruction in basketball and dance that they use to generate their halftime performances.

During the last home game of 2013 for the Harmony Grove Cardinals basketball teams, the cheering and excitement from the crowd were almost as enthusiastic at halftimes as during the games.

“My kids are the superstars of high school halftime,” said Lyndsey Kelly, a sixth-grade teacher and coach of the Harmony Grove Little Dribblers, a band of students from grades 1-4 who mix basketball skills with music and dance for an entertaining routine. “The Dribblers program introduces kids to basketball in a fun way. The students learn the fundamentals and use those skills before they get into the competitive side of the game.”

Kelly, who played for the Cardinals when she attended Harmony Grove and was on the only Lady Cardinals team that reached the state girls basketball playoffs, said she hopes young students learn more than just basketball.

“Along with the hand-eye coordination and the skills for basketball,” she said, “they gain self-esteem and confidence.”

This is the fourth year Kelly has led the Dribblers. This year, she also added first- and second-graders to the program. She said that in the past she had been concerned that the basketball was too big for the hands of younger children, but she said she worked with the basketball with a cousin who was in the first grade this year and decided it could be used by the younger students.

“We use the smaller women’s-team-size ball,” Kelly said. “It was a trial, and it was a success.”

In all, 62 students are participating in the program this year. It is also the first year the entire group has worked together on their routine on the court.

“In the routine, some of the younger students roll around the ball on the floor instead of dribble it,” Kelly said. “The older kids dribble the ball with their right and left hands, cross over and at a signal, they dribble around their feet and head. They move to a pass position and a shot position and do some defensive moves.”

Coach Kelly said one of the big moves in the routine is for the children to sit down on the floor of the court and move the ball around their arms and dribble as they work back up to a standing position.

The Dribblers have practiced the routine regularly through the fall semester, Kelly said. She builds a new five-minute routine each year based on her basketball and dance experiences.

“I was a clogger, and I did jazz dance from the time I was 5 years old until I was 12,” Kelly said. “After that, I had to decide to pick dance or basketball, and I picked basketball, and I’m glad I did.

It was as a junior in 2002 that Lyndsey Jackson was a member of the Lady Cardinals team that made it to the state championship tournament.

“I was a junior. We didn’t make it through the first rounds, but we got there,” Kelly said. “David Torres, who is now at Benton, was the coach. He was like a second dad, and the team were like sisters to me. We were together from the sixth through the 12th grade.”

Kelly said some of the people around Harmony Grove still call her L.J., her team nickname.

“It makes me feel young,” Kelly said.

She said her father also played a major role in her basketball success.

“We played in the old gym at Harmony Grove,” Kelly said. “My dad ran the clock at the games, and if I got flustered or upset about something I had done, I would look at him, and he would give me this look, and it would calm me down.”

Kelly’s playing days were over when she started attending Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

“I wish someone had pushed me a bit to play at college, but I was studying education, and I pushed to get my degree,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, I loved helping other kids with their studies. I felt I was doing something meaningful. Even then, I enjoyed seeing kids get it.”

At ASU, she met another education student who would become the love of her life, she said.

“I always said I would marry either a preacher or a teacher, and Brandon Kelly now teaches eighth-grade science at Harmony Grove and is the high school golf coach.”

Her husband also helps coach Kelly select the music for the Dribblers’ routines. This year, they used an upbeat mix of music for their performance.

“The kids get excited during practice, and they found out sports can be fun,” she said. “There was a little girl who was in an earlier Dribblers group who was shy and always worried she would make a mistake. I just had to tell her there was no pressure — just hustle, and making a mistake was OK. I loved to see her smile in practice.”

Kelly said she has been asked to go back to school and be certified to coach basketball but that she enjoys working with the Little Dribblers and being a teacher. She teachers American geography, history and government.

“Along with those subjects, I want my classes to also pass along a passion for reading,” Kelly said. “I think the classes teach students how to be well-rounded citizens and for them to understand how history shapes who we are today.”

The classes are still presented as fun, Kelly said. Students go on snipe hunts to search for historical facts on the Internet. They prepare papers and make presentations, speaking before their fellow students.

“The idea is to teach leadership even when they don’t know it is happening,” she said.

There has been talk of teams like the Little Dribblers using their routines to compete with teams from other schools. Kelly said that would be difficult because very few schools have a program like the Dribblers, and besides, Kelly likes the noncompetitive nature of the program as it is now.

“I do this because I love basketball, and I don’t want to lose what skills I still have, and to be able for the kids to enjoy the game at a different level,” Kelly said. “At the end of a performance, it is thrilling to see the kids run off the court, and I get 62 high-fives — it’s a rush. They are so pumped and feeling so good.”

However, she would like to video the group’s performances next year. She said parents always want the program videoed.

“We could make a DVD and give it to the students at the end of the season, along with their basketball (in Cardinal red and white) along with their team T-shirt, a team picture and a certificate,” Kelly said.

She said that over the years, many of her students have had her autograph their basketball, and that when former Little Dribblers are students in her sixth-grade classes, they still call her coach Kelly.

“I like that, too,” she said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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