With the largest number of athletes in its 16-year history as a ministry of the Salmon Creek-based Hillcrest Church, Upward Sports had a lengthy waitlist this year
Jessica Hofer Wilkinson
For Clark County Today
Excitement, energy, and good sportsmanship filled the air on Saturday (Sept. 9) as hundreds of elementary athletes and fans from all over Clark County descended onto the fields of Hillcrest Church of the Nazarene to kick off the 2023 Upward Sports flag football season.
Filling three football fields for one-hour games for three straight hours, over two hundred kindergarten through eighth-grade flag football players and nearly eighty cheerleaders played and cheered their first games of the season.
“The game day atmosphere is electric,” said Lindsey Guitierrez, the Upward Sports Cheerleading director who oversees cheer coaches, training, and practices and has a daughter in the program.
“I love that Upward Sports is part of the community and that families are excited about participating,’’ Guitierrez said. “The mission of Upward is to excel at sports and ministry, and I think we are doing a great job merging them for an awesome experience.”
A culture of joy and encouragement was palpable on the fields and sidelines Saturday as athletes exchanged high-fives and celebrations with their teammates and coaches throughout the morning, conquering new skills on the field and demonstrating their growing athleticism.
“I love seeing the kids light up after a big play and seeing kids rising to the challenge in a way I didn’t expect,” said Brian Lind, a first-time Upward Flag Football coach of third and fourth graders and father of two sons in the program. “I heard about Upward Sports through a parent in a baseball league who said we had to try it. The structure of this program, the ministry aspect of it, and the resources available to coaches are phenomenal. This was a great setup and a great start to the season.”
With the largest number of athletes in its 16-year history as a ministry of the Salmon Creek-based Hillcrest Church, Upward Sports had a lengthy waitlist this year. The program is run entirely by volunteers trained by directors and commissioners. More volunteers are needed to meet the growing interest in the program while maintaining its commitment to a high level of organization and accountability.
Over one hundred volunteers from dozens of area churches currently partner with the ministry to serve as coaches, referees, announcers, time-keepers, concession stand workers, and more, making the Saturday morning games run smoothly and efficiently from start to finish.
Johnny and Kristen Aarhus are members of Hillcrest Church and have served as Upward Sports directors for 15 of the 16-year program history. All four of their children grew up participating in the program, and they are passionate about running a low-cost sports program with high standards for performance and conduct and a positive message.
“We love the mission of Upward Sports. We strive to provide an exceptional sports league that shares the love of Jesus with kids in our community,” said Kristen Aarhus.
Sophia Guitierrez is a nine-year-old starting her third season of Upward Cheerleading. She said she loves “learning about God every week, meeting new friends, and going onto the field and doing the halftime cheer.”
Appreciation for the program and its mission extends beyond current participants, parents, and coaches. Cass Kenly is a freshman at Kalama High School, playing on the JV football team as a slot receiver and safety. He spent six years playing flag football through Upward and said he appreciates the memories he made during his time in the program.
“I learned the fundamentals of football and how to read the defense. I’m grateful for my years in Upward and think they helped me,” Kenly said. The high school freshman volunteered as a referee for two of Saturday’s games and plans to continue serving in that capacity as he can.
His father, Jeff Kenly, is the coach commissioner overseeing flag football coaches, training, and team rosters this year. He spent six years volunteering as an Upward Flag Football coach before stepping into his current role.
“I love the organization’s mission to show the light of Christ to kids, the Circle of Affirmation that we use to keep this a positive experience for everyone involved, and the opportunity to remind kids they have control of their choices and how they respond to challenges,’’ Jeff Kenly said. “We only have them for two hours a week, but we want those hours to be a positive experience and influence in their lives.”
Following cheerleader halftime performances and introductions, Upward representatives like Johnny and Kristen Aarhus joined players and cheerleaders on the field to speak to the crowd about virtues like grace, a topic discussed in weekly practices. They also highlighted a local faith-based nonprofit organization called Fellowship of Christian Athletes to connect community members to volunteer opportunities and a cause that might interest them.
Upward will partner with other local faith-based nonprofit organizations as the season continues to host a food drive and clothing drive at games, among other efforts. “God calls us to serve,” said Director Johnny Aarhus. “We want to serve our community and provide kids and adults avenues for community service too.”
Upward Sports helps facilitate over 2,000 sports programs across the U.S. They partner with local churches to provide communities with flag football, cheerleading, basketball, soccer, baseball, and softball programs.
Jessica Hofer Wilkinson is a freelance writer, home educator and mother of four and nursing home chaplain. She resides in Clark County.
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