On a muggy late afternoon, as a dozen or more volunteer coaches looked on, roughly a hundred kids ranging in age from 5 to 19 ran conditioning drills in the large field behind Southwestern Middle School in DeLand.
It’s the DeLand Dawgs youth league, an almost 30-year-old athletic program, based in the heart of the Spring Hill neighborhood of southwest DeLand.
Four days a week, from Monday to Thursday, up to 200 kids meet from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. under the watchful eye of a network of 35 volunteer coaches. The kids are trained as part of three programs the league currently offers — softball, football and cheer — which are competitive at five different levels.
But the training is more than just physical conditioning, the coaches say.
“It instills life lessons,” DeLand Dawgs Vice President Ryan Reckley said. “Keep fighting in the game, keep fighting in life.”
DeLand Dawgs President R.J. Simpson — who also is the defensive line coach for the DeLand Bulldogs at DeLand High School — looked out over the field on a recent day.
“Twenty-seven years ago, I was a kid just like them. So to be president … that’s something major for me,” Simpson said.
Simpson, a Class of 2000 graduate from DeLand High, participated in the program as a child, and decided as an adult to give back.
He’s not the only one. More than one child from the program has grown up, graduated college — sometimes with the help of an athletic scholarship — and come back to coach.
“Mentoring these kids — you treat them like they’re your own family,” Simpson said. “Lots of tough love.”
“We’re like big brothers — we’re always here, come have a conversation,” coach Derion Johnson added.
The league is ranked competitively as part of the Florida Elite conference, and has won numerous awards in football and cheer.
In 2019, the junior football team took home the Superbowl trophy, after winning against teams from 35 other Central Florida towns. The football team was ranked eighth in the nation, while the freshman and sophomore cheer teams both won first, and the juniors ranked second.
The DeLand Dawgs have helped countless kids use their athletic prowess to help secure college scholarships, the coaches said, and on the football side, more than one athlete who began in the program has turned professional.
The program is special, Reckley said.
“It’s the first program I’ve found that is really for the kids and for the community,” Reckley said. “[Other places] don’t have the hunger they have in DeLand. Many of the kids don’t have all the opportunities, definitely not all of the financial opportunities, that others do.”
Spring Hill is an area that has been noted for its majority African American population, and it’s chronically low household income level.
“I was born and raised in Candlelight Oaks; these are my people,” Simpson said, referring to a Spring Hill subdivision known mostly in the news for its crime rate. “The least I can do is get out there and work for them.”
Once a part of the DeLand Police Department’s PAL program, the league split off around 2016. It is now entirely run by a network of volunteers, and funded entirely through donations.
They make it work, they said, if a child and their family cannot afford the $20 registration fee, or the price of a uniform.
“We here don’t like to turn kids down; even if the family is in financial hardship, we will make sure every child will be able to participate,” cheer coordinator (and Coach Simpson’s wife) Sundria Simpson said. “Coaches donate not just time, but also money.”
“Lots of cookouts — not a lot of funding,” R.J. Simpson said.
It costs more than $25,000 a year to keep the program going, Simpson estimated, putting the cost of jerseys and other equipment for more than 200 children at almost $10,000. That doesn’t include the cost of traveling to games, overnight stays, insurance costs, coaching certifications, and more.
“We have been blessed. We receive quite a bit of help from the community,” Sundria Simpson said, explaining the fundraising events the group does. “We also do barbecues and car washes … raffles, personalized cow bells for the high school team.”
“A lot of kids don’t have an avenue to do something that’s not just sitting at home,” she added. “The program is about learning and development of lots of types of skills, skills for everyday life.”
“Other programs are so competitive among the adults, they forget about the kids. The culture is to win at all costs, and they lose the kids in the shuffle. It’s [become a] professional athlete or bust,” Reckley said. “I played in college and didn’t make it to be a professional athlete, but I became a professional, you know what I mean?”
Kids come from all over — some all the way from Sanford — just for the kinds of programs that the DeLand Dawgs offers.
“I’m open to any cheerleader or potential cheerleader even with no skills,” Sundria Simpson said. “We’re willing to teach from the ground level up.”
“Since 2016, it’s been steadily growing,” R.J. Simpson said. He estimates well over 200 kids are in the program, although on a recent day, that number was closer to 100.
“Some parents are holding back right now because of COVID-19,” Simpson said.
Florida Elite games would usually begin in August, but have been pushed back for a month.
“Everyone is kinda playing it by ear,” Reckley said. “We’re limited by the news, limited by the pandemic. Do we buy new uniforms? … We’re stuck in a dilemma right now — a lot of programs are stuck in the same situation. Everything moves at a snail pace.”
It’s not safe for the children to wear masks while practicing, but the expansive field — used with permission by the school district — allows for all three programs, and all age brackets, to each have their own space. The Dawgs are also trying to integrate a nearby track program, which also practices there.
At the field, parents are banished to behind a wire fence. Some wait in their cars, others drop off and go, and still more set up drink and snack tables.
Simpson looked out over the children. Among them was his daughter, one of two girls who play for the Bulldogs on the DeLand High football team.
“Giving back,” he said, “it’s just doing the right thing.”
Visit 605 New Hampshire Ave, DeLand. Monday to Thursday from 5:30 until 7:30 p.m.
The DeLand Dawgs Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/deland.dawgs.9?ref=br_rs