By Tessa Raebeck
This year’s recipient of the “Eli Manning Award for Best Arm” owes their success, in large part, to a Sag Harbor mother. Allison Scanlon not only coached the winning quarterback, she also created the team, the league, and the awards ceremony. Along with her husband Michael, Scanlon founded Hampton Youth Sports, a program dedicated to giving all kids a chance to develop their athletic skills – and have fun doing it.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Scanlon played in youth basketball leagues, where she gained the talent necessary to go on to compete in college. When her daughter asked why boys could play basketball in third grade, but girls couldn’t, Scanlon, recalling her own opportunities, didn’t have an answer. Rather than explaining to her daughter that there was simply not a program for her, Scanlon decided to create one.
“Forty years ago, I was able to play basketball in leagues,” Scanlon recalls, “We were prepared with a strong in-house program.”
The Scanlons decided to ensure all kids had the same opportunity to play, regardless of their skill, experience, size, or gender. Allison registered as a non-profit, organized fundraisers, purchased uniforms, and hunted down gym time. Soon, she had enlisted a board, coaches, referees, and players.
“Allison is the integral part of the whole organization,” explains John Brioche, a Hampton Youth Sports coach and parent, “I’m a coach and I help out whenever I can, but she seems to be the lifeline.”
“I get choked up when I even talk about Allison,” says Amy Werfel, whose son plays in the program. “She has put her heart so much into this.” Werfel recalled how Scanlon “fought tooth and nail for gym time,” eventually turning to Bridgehampton and the Ross School. By agreeing to take on kids from other towns, Hampton Youth Sports was able to guarantee gym time and provide even more kids with the opportunity to play.
In addition to ensuring the logistics were in place, Scanlon developed a philosophy for the program. Hampton Youth Sports concentrates on improving kids’ skills and confidence without emphasizing competition.
“The focus of youth sports is supposed to be developmental,” says Scanlon, “Kids need to build their skills and learn the game.”
There are no cuts or championships; the primary goal at Hampton Youth Sports is to have fun. Coaches strive to keep teams even and encourage kids to try different positions. A player could be a quarterback one week and a lineman the next. The program was founded to give everyone a chance to play, and Scanlon stands by that mission. Rather than having cuts when there were more players than teams, the league was simply separated into two divisions.
Scanlon’s inclusive mentality has ensured the success of Hampton Youth Sports. In addition to winter basketball, the program expanded this fall to include a flag football league.
“Allison had ten times as many kids as she thought,” says Werfel, “We expected ten and got around 100.”
Kids who had never touched a football found themselves loving the sport’s safer version. According to Brioche, who coached flag football, the aim is “making sure that every kid gets the opportunity to compete and feel like they’re part of something.”
Like the basketball league, flag football has seen incredible success in its inaugural year.
Scanlon has witnessed that success transfer back to her own home. “I think it was great for my daughter to play flag football this year. By the last game, she was running the ball in for touchdowns, she was making interceptions. It kind of clicked with her what she was supposed to be doing and she had a lot of fun.”
Through Hampton Youth Sports, kids who had never enjoyed gym class or gotten involved in little league have found a place to try, and they’re being joined by more and more of their classmates.
“I was shocked,” says Scanlon, “We had 100 kids come out for flag football and I bet we’ll get 175 next year.”
Along with the many families now involved with Hampton Youth Sports, Scanlon has high hopes for the future of the program. In addition to expanding both the basketball and flag football programs next year, she hopes to start a Running Club.
“We don’t want to duplicate what everybody else is doing, but we thought it was important to fill the gaps.” In addition to preparing kids for track and field, the club would focus, quite simply, on keeping kids active.
Hampton Youth Sports also hopes to include more girls in its programs. Of the ten girls that played flag football, Scanlon says, “I don’t know any girls who didn’t have a good experience. They all really liked it. They played as well as the boys and had a lot of fun.”
Scanlon wants Sag Harbor girls to have the same opportunities she had playing in basketball leagues as a girl.
“Kids need to learn and it doesn’t matter what their gender is,” agrees Jaye Cohen, whose son also played flag football this fall. “Allison and Mike Scanlon have the right philosophy for these kids: to build the kids’ confidence, skills, and involvement in athletics.”
As Ross School Athletic Director, Cohen is hopeful that this philosophy will have a positive impact on varsity programs in the future. Scanlon believes it will.
“We don’t want it to just be a babysitting service,” she maintains, “We want to actually teach them something. You have to cast the widest net in order to develop the biggest pool of talent.”
By giving all kids the chance to play, Hampton Youth Sports will ultimately feed dozens of experienced, skilled players to coaches at the middle school and varsity levels throughout the East End.
Even those kids who choose not to pursue sports benefit from their involvement with the program. Gary Robbins, whose daughter, Elizabeth, plays flag football, says of the experience, “Everybody made new friends because it wasn’t just Sag Harbor, it was Amagansett, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Water Mill…a broader area.”
“Allison has really changed a lot of kids lives,” says Werfel, “She really had this vision of what sports could be and she just saw it through. We were all standing around going, ‘How did she do this?’”