Big month ahead for VHS sports fanatics

VHS guard Emily Calkins tries to escape Wildwood’s tough defense.

With the season of giving upon us, high school sports fans residing in The Villages are set to receive quite the gift. The Villages High School will host a trifecta of marquee sporting events this month, beginning with a six-pack of boys and girls basketball games during the Sumter County Showcase on Saturday, before concluding with the sixth-annual Battle at The Villages boys basketball tournament from Dec. 27-29 inside the VHS Athletic Center. The state’s premier gridiron stars also will descend upon Florida’s Friendliest Hometown on Dec. 21, as the community hosts the 65th annual Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Football Classic at The H.G. Morse Range.

“Not many places in the country have the opportunity to host events like these quite like we do here in The Villages,” said VHS athletics director and head football coach, Richard Pettus. “It’s a really special time for us and it’s great to be able to showcase our school, our facilities, our athletics department and our community to everyone who attends and enjoys these events.”

With a winter season sports cycle underway for the Buffalo that features both boys and girls basketball and soccer, along with wrestling and girls weightlifting, the trio of events provide even more statewide exposure for the community and its high school.

Nearly 5,000 people attended the three events in 2018, which are funded in part through grants provided by the Sumter County Tourism Development Council.

A grant of $60,000 was approved by the council to help facilitate this year’s Battle at The Villages — and its subsidiary Sumter County Showcase event — while a grant of $20,000 was put forth to offset costs accrued in hosting the FACA All-Star Football Classic for the seventh time.

“I’m very excited about our path with these events in The Villages,” said Doug Gilpin, Sumter County Tourism Development Council chairman. “What really started in infancy is growing each year to become more and more substantial. And I think one of the biggest positives and reasons we encourage these events locally is because it all goes back to influencing our young people and keeping them involved.”

The three events are anticipated to occupy more than 500 hotel room nights in total, as the local economic impact from the Battle at The Villages alone is estimated upward of $200,000 — with the weekendlong hoops tournament bringing some of the nation’s best boys basketball teams and players to town.

“For our athletes, it allows them to compete against some of the best that our state and country has to offer,” said VHS head boys basketball coach and assistant athletic director Colt McDowell. “The best part of it is that it’s right here, too. We don’t have to travel far to get that competition — it’s right here in our own gym and in front of our own great fans.”

The 65th annual installment of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Football Classic also returns to The Villages this month, featuring a weeklong docket of on- and off-field events catered to the state’s top players on the gridiron. The matchup splits the football-rich Sunshine State in half — pitting North versus South teams — with proceeds from the event to benefit the Buffalo Scholarship Fund.

“These events help brand our community, our school and our athletic programs,” McDowell said. “The buzz that they create across the state does wonders. We’ve got tremendous facilities and a great area to host in with our restaurants and hotels, and it really provides us another wonderful opportunity to show off our community.”

Wildwood Middle High School will offer residents of the surrounding area an athletic treat this holiday season as well, as the Wildcats will host the inaugural Wildwood Holiday Shootout — welcoming eight visiting boys and girls basketball teams on Dec. 20-21 at WMHS.

“I think any chance that we have to bring awareness to basketball in our area — with the recent success we’ve had — it’s important for us,” said Wildwood athletics director and head girls basketball coach Ryan Harrison. “It gives us an opportunity to not only highlight the talent we have, but also highlight our facilities. Between our gym and The Villages’ facilities, we feel like we have some of the better ones in the entire area.”

A key component to the monthlong roundup of events is an estimated 2,000 volunteer hours put forth by more than 250 volunteers in total, all of which help ensure visiting patrons and teams alike are met with the utmost consideration.

“I am honored to get to coordinate with all of our volunteers, who really help make the core values of hospitality and stewardship come to life,” said Marty Dzuro Jr., director of VHS basketball operations and the Battle at The Villages tournament. “I believe all three events are each phenomenal in attracting fans and visitors from outside of the area to The Villages in Sumter County, and showing off the uniqueness of our community.”

Tickets for the Sumter County Showcase and Battle at The Villages can be purchased in advance at battleatthevillages.com, while tickets for the FACA All-Star Football Classic also are available now at the school’s front office during normal operating hours.

“When businesses or people consider relocating or moving to an area, they want to see that it’s a well-rounded one,” Gilpin said. “When you think of The Villages, you might not necessarily think of high school athletics right away. But these events are well planned, organized and then executed — which is exactly why they’re a wonderful thing for us to have in Sumter County’s portfolio.”

Staff writer Cody Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5286, or cody.hills@thevillagesmedia.com.