Walnut Creek baseball camp to return after 2020 COVID closure
By Lou Fancher
The distinctive cracks of bats hitting baseballs will return June 14 to the fields at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek as the Bronco Baseball Academy marks its jubilant 20th-anniversary season.
Forced into hiatus during 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, the resumption of the popular weeklong camps established in 2001 by Jon and Ben Campopiano is especially cherished by its participant families. Scott Reiss says his son, Cody, in fourth grade at Walnut Acres Elementary School, will participate in his third year as a camper.
“Bronco picks up where Little League leaves off in terms of reinforcing sportsmanship and self-esteem. Unlike Little League, kids play games and interact with others of different ages and abilities. Cody has really benefited from the opportunity to step out of his comfort zone and mesh with kids who are older and younger. The staff has an incredible knack for engaging the kids on all levels. It’s so much more than baseball instruction and games.”
Natalie Ivankovich’s two children, three-year camp “veteran” Lukas, 10, and Joe Joe, 13, who has “aged out” of participation after five years, benefit from the overwhelming positivity ingrained in the program and delivered by coaches who reward campers more for hustling, following directions, practicing good sportsmanship and focused listening than for home runs.
“The counselors’ love of baseball and camaraderie as a group trickles down to the campers and creates such a positive experience. My kids never want to leave camp at the end of the day. There’s always ‘one more catch with Coach Scotty’ or ‘one more trade’ of a baseball card,” she says.
Ben Campopiano, who is the Academy’s sole owner/operator now that his older brother has stepped into an “advisory-only” role, says the three things he missed most last year were coaches and staff who share his love for teaching kids, the campers’ smiles as they carouse on the field and emails from parents saying their kids are overjoyed to participate.
Campopiano is the principal at Pine Hollow Middle School in Concord and previously served as vice principal, social studies teacher and baseball coach at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek. He was the director of baseball operations at Santa Clara University from 2011 to 2015.
Campopiano is also the father of a 5-year-old daughter and a son, age 2-and-a-half. Fittingly, he fields interview questions while attending his nephews’ baseball game and is accompanied by his son, with whom he spent the day due to his kid “having the sniffles.” He says in years past that he wouldn’t have stayed home and worked remotely when his son was ill.
“Prepandemic, I wouldn’t have done this, but we need to take care of ourselves and our families if we are to take care of our students,” he says.
Activating his unique, parent-educator dual mindset means Campopiano knows firsthand the multiple stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says keeping his kids engaged and creative without the stimulation of trips to zoos, parks, museums or simply “hanging out with friends” was a monumental challenge and that a child with the sniffles was “nerve-wracking” during the worst phase of the pandemic. In his position at Pine Hollow Middle, he is most proud of helping staff and teachers “dive into” the social and emotional aspects of their jobs.
“We’ve talked about it for years, but this pandemic forced us to put into practice for ourselves what we’ve applied to students: sessions on mindfulness, journaling, health and well-being. We’d take time at meetings to let teachers talk about how they were feeling. A friend’s data showed me they were feeling overwhelmed by the situation. I worked hard to say to them they needed to take care of themselves and their families so they could be good for the students.”
Applying similar principles to the camps is therefore instinctive for Campopiano, who started the program to fill a gap.“When we started, it was reactionary. Kids needed a place to play and a good camp that could provide support and fun. There were Little League and club teams but not a camp or clinic where a kid could go for growth without necessarily emphasizing competition — a place for mastering fundamentals and having fun learning the game.”
Asked about operating the camps under the ever-vacillating rubric of pandemic restrictions, he says the COVID-19 Guideline Plan outlined extensively on the Bronco Baseball Academy website (broncobaseballacademy.com) is designed for flexibility. It is largely modeled on plans he developed as the principle of a middle school. Campopiano attended school district and county health and safety meetings, studied CDC and California COVID information and relied on American Camp Association of California guidelines for sports in different tiers.
“Here’s how the YMCA is doing pickup and dropoff,” he says, as an example, “then I’d tweak it for our situations.”
Camps this year will have a maximum attendance of 125, previously 150. All staff members and campers will have to complete daily health checks that include a temperature reading and other screening to be determined. Visitors are limited, and campers must bring masks along with bats and helmets that will no longer be shared. Children who are ill must stay home. Perhaps the biggest change will be that teams and groups will have kids and coaches practice and play games in stable, 16-member cohorts.
Ivankovich says five years of experience leaves her with “implicit trust in Ben Campopiano and BBA staff to provide kids with a safe and positive baseball experience.”
Reiss concurs, noting that “We don’t have any concerns about Cody returning to camp this summer. The COVID risks with kids in outdoor settings are extremely minimal. We are confident the staff will ensure a safe environment.”
One thing that won’t change and even gains more solid footing is the camp’s longtime practice of offering scholarships to campers in need of support.
“This year we started the Joe Dawson Scholarship Fund in honor of Joe Dawson, a Walnut Creek citizen who recently passed away and supported our cause,” says Campopiano.
About $10,000 has been raised this year to support $250 to $500 scholarships applied to tuition, equipment or uniforms.
“Giving back to the community is crucial,” says Campopiano, who plans to provide roughly 10 scholarships this year. “We’re always raising money and will continue. We didn’t have an official scholarship fund before, but anytime we ran into hardship or need, we gave free camps. That won’t stop, and we hope that with community support it will continue to grow.”