By Jake Sutherlin
Christian college athletics are a massive investment of time and effort for athletes and coaches during the school year, but programs never quite shut off in the summer. For many programs—including at William Jessup University, Ozark Christian College, and Johnson University—summer is when hundreds of area athletes visit campus for sports camps.
WILLIAM JESSUP UNIVERSITY (Rocklin, Calif.)
Summer sports camps provide many clear and tangible benefits, according to Lance Von Vogt, athletics director and men’s basketball coach at William Jessup University.
“It’s one of the ways in which we connect with and impact our local community,” said Von Vogt, the 2022 athletics director of the year in the Golden State Athletic Conference.
“It’s important to get kids away from screens during the summer, but it also gives kids a chance to develop skills [athletically and socially] and learn teamwork.”
WJU has about 1,800 students and competes in the NAIA (the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). It hosts numerous camps throughout the summer, and the opportunity for impact is borne out by the numbers:
- Baseball—225 campers participated this summer throughout multiple sessions
- Softball—120 campers in a single session
- Women’s basketball—66 campers in two sessions
- Men’s basketball—275 campers in three sessions
- Basketball team camp—200 campers from 15 high schools
- Soccer—207 campers (more than 60 on the waiting list)
- STUNT (cheer)—800 campers in four sessions
- Volleyball—110 campers in a single session (over 60 on the waiting list)
Summer camps at WJU provided an opportunity for about 2,000 kids to be impacted in the name of Jesus this year.
“We lead with Christ-centered education. We lead and finish with that,” Von Vogt said. “Our coaches are rooted in Christ, and it shows through their demeanor, care, service, and love.”
He hears from many parents who commend the camps and are grateful for the coaches’ and players’ influences on the kids. And many kids want to go to WJU’s camps, rather than others offered in the area, because of that personal investment.
In addition to potential athletic, personal, and spiritual growth, the camps also acquaint these athletes—and prospective students—with WJU’s campus. Campers spend time in the dining halls, dormitories, and athletic facilities. They meet coaches and athletes, and they become familiar with the program for their chosen sport.
“We use a lot of current athletes at these camps, and it provides an opportunity for them to invest,” Von Vogt said. “They learn more at these camps than people could possibly imagine; it goes both ways, and it’s a special thing to see.”
The camps also provide a significant financial boost.
William Jessup University’s athletics department gets a six-figure bump from the camps, which it uses for salaries and as a booster account to fund team meals. The university also generates funds at the camps through the dorms, food services, and general facilities’ usage which goes to the school’s general fund.
OZARK CHRISTIAN COLLEGE (Joplin, Mo.)
Ozark Christian College hosts basketball and volleyball camps during its summer offseason.
This year, 198 high school and middle school boys attended Ozark’s basketball camp, as did 128 high school and middle school girls. And 60 middle school girls attended the program’s volleyball camp. All totaled, more than 350 students were reached with sports skills and Christian programming this summer at OCC, a school of about 600 students that competes in Division II of the National Christian College Athletics Association (NCCAA).
“We would like to think [the sports camps] have a great impact,” said Chris Lahm, OCC’s athletics director, men’s basketball coach, and NCCAA Hall of Fame inductee from earlier this summer. Lahm has run camps at Ozark for the past 17 years and has been involved at the camps there since 1992.
Ozark’s camps provide a chance for local Christian athletes to see that they don’t compete alone, Lahm said. An athlete might see a kid from a crosstown rival at a camp and learn he also is a Christian, and seeing that can encourage athletes to be more vocal about their faith on and off the court.
These camps also serve as a reminder that sports are fun. The camps can create lifelong memories and relationships.
“It’s just fun getting to watch the kids and coaches playing these games, seeing the camaraderie,” Lahm said.
A favorite drill is running through last-second plays and shots, which are recorded on the cell phone to make sure the shot gets off in time.
“All the kids want to hit buzzer-beaters,” Lahm said.
Ozark’s camps begin and end each day with devotions, and a core facet of each camp is simply to introduce students to Jesus. It’s difficult to distinguish the factors that attract students to OCC, but surveys of freshmen indicate about 7 percent attended a sports camp at Ozark.
OCC’s camps generate $40,000 to $50,000, all of which goes into the college’s general fund.
JOHNSON UNIVERSITY TENNESSEE (Knoxville)
Camps look a bit different at Johnson University For many years, Johnson’s coaches worked with the programs part-time, so the university leaned on other resources, primarily the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), to run the camps.
“We have an intentional partnership with FCA because our mission and theirs align well, and they have resources to reach kids that we might not have access to,” said Brandon Perry, Johnson’s athletics director and men’s basketball coach.
That said, Perry takes a more active role in the school’s basketball summer camp. Perry’s resume is impressive—his team won the NCCAA DII National Championship in 2021, and he was honored as NCCAA Coach of the Year in 2018. But Perry also helps facilitate both the volleyball and competitor camps (a four-day church camp with lots of sports activities).
This past summer Johnson’s basketball camps had 35 local high school men’s teams and 25 women’s teams. The volleyball camp had 300 participants. And the competitors’ camp had 600 attendees.
Perry said that having such big groups on campus in the summertime has been a big recruiting tool. JU’s coaches develop personal relationships with high school coaches, and prospective athletes are identified. Several athletes within Johnson’s programs came directly from these camps, and Perry himself got most of his recruiting class this year from these summer camps. The camps also provide a six-figure financial bump to the school’s general fund.
Because of the vast array of teams and players at these camps, the range of spiritual impact varies widely. Many of the schools are public, so athletes come from various backgrounds. For many students, these camps provide a singular avenue to encounter Jesus.
“I don’t know if I could state the spiritual impact because it is so big,” Perry said.
Perry is most grateful for the relationships formed with other coaches.
“It’s good to hear from other coaches, how they go about doing faith in the context of a team,” Perry said. “Coaching is a hard gig, and having like-minded people you can talk with and bounce ideas off of is great. It’s what the church is supposed to be—a community of people doing life together, and we can do that because of these camps.”
Jake Sutherlin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, works as a youth intern for a church in Mississippi.