On a warm, sunny morning in early August, Jonatas Melo throws ball after ball at football players who are racing towards the goal.
The Baltimore Blast midfielder is one of the most dominant passers-by on the indoor soccer team, having had double-digit assists in each of his last three seasons, but he’s not doing any drills with his Blast teammates today. Instead, it’s with a group of 13-year-olds at Meadowood Regional Park in Lutherville, Md.
“Good pass! Good pass! ” he yells as a couple of players complete a give and go.
A tall girl in long white socks turns her back to the goal and shoots a ball into the net, barely missing the goalkeeper’s outstretched hands.
“Save that!” he calls encouragingly as the young goalkeeper gets up from the lawn.
For the seventh year, Melo is hosting one of the 25 youth soccer camps that Blast hosts each summer across the Baltimore area. Around 700 children between the ages of 5 and 13 take part each year. The events are designed to grow the team’s fan base, pay the bills, and of course, teach some keen students some skills.
Every day from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Melo focuses on a different aspect of the game. Monday is dribbling; Tuesday goes by; Wednesday is shot; Thursday is skill and Friday is a fun day with games, pizza, and an award ceremony.
“It’s great. We have kids of all levels, Rec, Club, some are great [Blast] Fans watching us play on the field, ”said Melo. “They want to meet the players and try to learn a little.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Blast’s 2020-21 season to be canceled, which made this year’s camps extra sweet, Melo said, because he was able to get back into the community, connect with young fans and some of his 15 years of experience to impart professional football experience for the campers. It also means fans will soon be able to return to Towson University’s SECU Arena, where the Blast plays their home games. The Blast opens its 40th season in December.
Some campers came as far as Pennsylvania to meet the blast star, Melo said.
“I’m not the greatest athlete, but these kids don’t care, they see me as their hero,” he said with a smile. “I love working with children because they look at you and say, ‘I want to be like you one day.'”
The connections Melo and other Blast players make with young athletes during camps are critical to Blast’s success, said head coach David Bascome. This year, Bascome has broken up the structure of the camp into blocks to ensure campers are continuously engaged during each session – from keeping their feet up as much as possible to constantly changing exercises so they don’t get bored. But it is more important to create an emotional connection between the camper and the advisor.
A young fan could get the chance to quickly meet a player and get an autograph after the game, Bascome said, but continuous interactions during a week-long camp could change their lives forever.
“The Baltimore Blast has been creating and empowering memories for fans and players for 40 years,” he said. “And that has to continue to happen.”
At the other end of the lawn in Meadowood, another blast player, Keegan Kelly, helps organize a group of players into one-on-one practice. Two players sprint towards a ball that is rolled between them.
“Put the trains on, put the trains on!” Kelly calls campers as one tries to defeat the other to get a free shot on target.
Kelly is the son of former blast coach Danny Kelly, who left the team in 2020 after 14 seasons. A former McDonogh Standout who played two years at the University of Maryland, the younger Kelly is entering his first season at The Blast after signing his first professional contract this spring.
Kelly attended the blast camps when he was younger and later helped run them during his father’s tenure. As a contestant, he was the kind of camper who overwhelmed the Blast players with questions about their game, preparation, and more. Now he is the recipient of the same questions.
“It’s crazy to think that I was one of those kids in this camp and some of them come over and ask me, ‘What’s it like to sign a contract?’ … ‘What do you recommend to get where you are?’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know, I have to think about it,’ ”Kelly said.
Kelly soon started giving advice: start practicing good habits, removing bad foods from your diet, and most importantly, working on your basics.
“Camps are fun, of course, but the kids who have these ambitions to take it to the next level need to start work early,” Kelly said. “That is why the camp is mainly about consolidating these foundations.”
As the season approaches, with the prospect of playing their first competitive football in nearly two years, Kelly and Melo said they’ll train hard to be fit when they enter training camp. The team will have a new coach in Bascome, a long-time player who has become an assistant coach.
Bascome has brought a new philosophy to the team while maintaining parts of the system he built with Danny Kelly. What hasn’t changed is the team’s focus on continuing to reach young, aspiring players in the Baltimore area and making sure the kids have fun learning the game.
“It’s fantastic to be with and raise the kids,” said Keegan Kelly. “To have these experiences that you will hopefully not soon forget.”
Photo credit: Brooks DuBose / PressBox
Issue 270: August / September 2021