A tradition kids can count on

LA CRESCENTA — Since her 1998 graduation from Crescenta Valley High, Michelle Greco, a UCLA standout and veteran of the 2004 WNBA champion Seattle Storm, has devoted her time and efforts to conducting an annual weeklong summer basketball camp for girls at her high school alma mater.

While the camp went by different names in its early years, the Michelle Greco Basketball Camp — as it’s been known for the last six — commemorated its 10th anniversary this week.

It’s only when Greco pauses to glance at the large collage of camp photographs spanning much of the last 10 years hanging on the wall in the hallway right next to the open portals of the Falcons gymnasium that the significance of the milestone really sets in.

“Some of those pictures, it feels like it was just last summer and it was like six years ago,” Greco said during the lunch break of her camp on Wednesday. “When you actually see the pictures on the wall and you see the campers who have been here, it feels like a long time.

“You see some of the campers who are now in high school when they used to be in our little young group, and it kind of makes you open your eyes and realize you’ve been here for a while.”

Current Falcons varsity starters Cassie Pappas and Stephanie Ziemann are alumni of Greco’s camps. In fact, Crescenta Valley boys’ assistant Joe Maniccia, who has been at Greco’s side throughout the 10-year run, estimated that most of the present girls’ squad has spent summers past learning the game from the Falcons’ all-time leading scorer.

Much like former Falcons boys’ Coach Jim Smiley’s camp, which extended its run to 17 years in July, Greco’s camp has come to feel like an annual tradition in the community.

“I think that a lot of the girls look forward to it during the summer and it’s one of those things where they can count on it,” Greco said. “We’re consistent with that and we want to keep it a tradition, because I personally think it’s a great thing.”

Greco’s statement would seem to be supported by her estimation that 90% of the 33 campers in attendance this year were repeat visitors.

That continuity is mirrored in the people that return year after year to staff the camp, a group that includes members of Greco’s family and coaches and teammates from her past such as Maniccia and former Bruin Marie Philman.

“It most definitely [has a family feel to it], especially seeing the girls once a year and knowing them by name,” said Michelle’s brother, Mike Greco, a regular assistant at the camp through the years. “It’s nice to see the girls as they grow up throughout the years, getting taller and improving their game.

“It’s something that we look forward to every August.”

Sisters Stephanie and Samantha Lamb, both 11, have also come to look forward to the camp and came back for their second year this year.

“They’re trying to teach you this stuff now since when you’re younger, it’s easier to learn,” said Stephanie Lamb. “It will help you when you get older.”

Both Lamb sisters said they want to play basketball in middle and high school.

“You have to break bad habits like traveling and double dribble,” Samantha Lamb added.

Keeping the activities fresh is one challenge Michelle Greco has faced as more and more campers return.

“I do try to change it a bit because we have the same girls that come back every year and I don’t want them to just be going through the motions,” she said. “Every year I try to have a different competition for the girls so their minds are staying sharp.”

Aside from the hoop camp standards like offensive and defensive drills, Greco said she has learned over the years to incorporate occasional non-basketball activities into the program just to keep the girls having fun.

“I really like how we can play basketball and have fun at the same time,” Emily Hayhurst, a 9-year-old second-year camper said. “I came back because I’m really improving my skills.”

While it didn’t dampen the overall mood of the camp, this year’s attendance was down about 50% from the camp’s peak years when it drew as many as 50 to 60.

“I don’t know if it’s the fact that women’s basketball in the area has kind of declined and maybe they’re going more toward soccer and softball,” Michelle Greco said. “I’m not sure, but I would love to get the basketball program back to where it used to be and that interest back in girls.”

Mike Greco, who is a youth sports director at the North Valley YMCA, fears girls’ basketball is on the fast track to extinction, but could be boosted by more hands-on outreach to young girls from the WNBA and university and college programs.

“It’s frustrating for me to see the numbers just dwindle because I love girls’ basketball,” Mike Greco said. “There’s not enough role models for girls right now, in my opinion.”

As long as Michelle Greco continues to teach girls basketball, La Crescenta and surrounding communities will not be lacking for a role model, and as long as she’s there, it seems the girls will come.

“I like how she can interact with young kids beginning to play — she really gave me a boost,” Hayhurst said. “I’m always gonna come back until I’m too old.”

 GABRIEL RIZK covers sports. He can be reached at (818) 637-3226 or at gabriel.rizk@latimes.com.

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