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This summer is a sports camp marathon for Moravian college's Mary Beth Sprik

Her dedication and expertise helps area youngsters excel in athletics

(Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)— This summer, there are a lot of happy campers clustered around Mary Beth Spirk, women's basketball coach and assistant director of athletics at Moravian College. And not just the girls in Moravian's basketball camps for teenage players in June and July, but a couple of hundred youngsters, ages 3 to 16, at the Bethlehem YMCA, where Spirk is putting in 400 hours -- yes, that's 400 hours -- of service as sports camp director.

All this makes for a breathless couple of months for Spirk, who's accustomed to down time in the summer. Normally, summer is when she takes a break from the daytime classes, afternoon practices, and evening games of the academic year. But not this year.

Spirk is finishing a master's degree in sports administration through the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, near Mobile, Alabama. She's done all the coursework on-line and will take her comprehensive exams in July. But before she qualifies, she must put in 400 hours of what the curriculum calls "mentorship": hands-on work in the field.

"I had a lot of options," says Spirk, who has been an instructor at Moravian since 1987. "I could have gone to New York and worked with the New York Liberty [women's basketball team]. But I'd been teaching racquetball at the Y through Moravian, and I thought: ‘Why don't I just do it here? I already know everybody.' "
Randy Ballangee, executive director of the Bethlehem Y, knew a good thing when he heard it. "It's been really good for us," he said. "We're having fun."

"They were ecstatic!" Spirk says of the Y's response to the idea of a college-level coach leading a summer sports staff that's largely composed of high school and college students.

For Spirk, whose first job after graduation from Dickinson College was at Wiley House, a forerunner of KidsPeace, in Schnecksville, it was a return to an age group she enjoys.

"With little kids, you have different goals," she says. "You try to keep them occupied, you get them to play with each other, to channel all that energy, to listen. You want everyone to leave with a smile on their face. And you want them to achieve some kind of success in every session, whether it's learning to run in a zig-zag or play with a buddy or just meet someone new."

In the first two weeks of the Y's summer program, she worked with 30 children at its main facility in Bethlehem and another 30 at the Fountain Hill branch. Ballangee said the camps draw an average of 25 kids, starting with preschoolers, in areas such as youth sports (for younger children), soccer, and basketball.

In addition to the day camps, she is leading clinics at the Y in basketball and racquetball. She also is teaching cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to the Y staff. "They were talking about the need for someone certified in CPR at a staff meeting," she says. "And I didn't know whether I should tell them, but finally I said"—and here her voice gets very tiny and timid—" ‘Um, I'm certified in CPR.' "

That was enough to get her some more service hours toward her degree.
The U.S. Sports Academy, which offers the graduate program requiring such a heavy commitment to field work, is a non-profit agency founded 30 years ago, just after the United States was trounced in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The USSA web site explains the "inferior performance" as the result of poor administration, lack of medical support, and unscientific coaching and training, all of which the academy was formed to address.

Spirk says its on-line or distance learning program is perfect for coaches, whose lives are bounded by sports seasons and summer camps. But because there are no classes to attend, the program is thick with papers. Spirk found the research a challenge and the writing time-consuming. "I came to basketball practice one day," she says, "and I said to the team: ‘OK, I'm not in a good mood. I have two 25-page papers to write and I procrastinated, and now I've got to finish them.' " But she found "no sympathy there." "Coach, you've got to learn to budget your time," scolded the players, just as Spirk scolded them when they complained of being overloaded with class assignments and term papers.

Now her schedule looks more like theirs. By the time the summer is over, her camps will have seen a couple of hundred children. This is in addition to the basketball camps at Moravian and such administrative holdovers as the search committee for a men's lacrosse coach at the College. On a typical day, she may find herself at the Y from 8:00 a.m. to noon, running to Moravian for a committee meeting on her lunch hour and going back to the Y from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. "Right now I'm excited, and my energy's high," she says with a grin. "Check in with me at the end of August, when my camps are over and my comps are done."