The smile on Frederik De Paep’s face said it all. While sitting on the floor of the Washington High School gym after a two-hour clinic given by Coach Grant Young and his staff, there was no sign that De Paep was wearing down, even after he and the Belgium boys basketball team had a scrimmage that morning in Union. And the day was not over. An afternoon scrimmage against a group of Washington Blue Jays was still to be played, and De Paep was anxiously waiting for the tip-off.
“This has really been something that I have enjoyed,” said De Paep, a 6-4, 17 year-old who was part of the Youth Sports Exchange organization that brought a boys and girls basketball team to the United States in July. “This experience in Washington and Union has been very good. It has been fun here.”
De Paep was making his second trip to America as a member of a YSE team, and he wanted to absorb as much American-style basketball as he could.
Coming to America
For the past three years, Koen Van Herzeele, organizer and team manager of Youth Sports Exchange of Belgium, has organized trips to the U.S. and has arranged host families in Hermann for the players and staff. This year he arranged games in Hermann, Union, Washington, St. Clair and Harrisburg, with another game scheduled against Hallsville after the teams arrived in the States.
Young and his assistant, Adam Meyer, greeted Van Herzeele and the Belgium boys and girls as they entered the Washington gym, and for the next two hours it was non-stop basketball drills and fundamentals.
“We try to cater to these kids and do things each individual can take back with them and work on their own,” said Young. “We did the same ball handling and shooting drills, but we add a little more each year.”
This was the third year Van Herzeele has brought a boys basketball team to Franklin County, and the first time he’s brought a girls team. The past couple years, the girls teams were with host families in St. Charles, while the boys players were hosted by Hermann families.
“They were excited to do all of the things we gave them,” Young said. “It’s also a great experience for our kids having them here. Our kids love coming and scrimmaging them because it is kids they are never going to see again. The Washington kids see some of these players develop and look in the papers and can say, hey, I got to play against him. They bring a different style from overseas.”
The 15-day stay in the U.S. started in Chicago on July 1, with tours and sightseeing in the Windy City, and then the teams made their way in vans to Gasconade and Franklin counties, with games along the way in LaSalle-Peru, Ill., and Alton, Ill. Tuesday, July 11, on the itinerary was billed as “Union and Washington Day.”
Chris Simmons, the Union boys coach, and Dustin Weiskopf, the Union girls coach, both saw the Belgium scrimmages as a “unique” experience for their teams.
“I love doing it,” said Simmons. “It’s a great experience. The kids speak a different language and play a different style of basketball. I just like the experience of playing kids from a different country. They get up and down the floor and play fast.”
Weiskopf was also impressed with how the Belgium girls played, their passing and their movement without the ball.
“They are long and physical and guard you tough man-to-man. They are skilled and move the ball very well. Their transition is really good and sometimes they get down the floor without a dribble.”
For Bart Van Bouwel, it was the second year in a row that he coached the Belgium girls team on their trip here.
“I really like how friendly they were and made us feel welcome,” he said after the clinic at Washington High School. “We had some good workouts here in Washington. I like the atmosphere. The kids enjoyed every moment of this trip.”
More Than Basketball
It wasn’t all about basketball. The teams also saw a Cardinals baseball game and visited the Arch in St. Louis, went to Six Flags, spent time shopping and enjoyed dodgeball and swimming at various venues. They also had a tour of the Mizzou campus in Columbia, escorted by retired basketball coach Dennis Kruse, and visited the MU book store.
“We did many other things besides basketball because we try to get as much of the American way of life as we can,” said Van Bouwel.
Wim Dresselaers, who coached the Belgium boys team, said it was his first time with a team here. What impressed him were the playing facilities.
“In Belgium, even our professional teams do not have gyms like this,” he said after the scrimmage in Union. Dresselaers said finding gymnasiums like the ones in Washington and Union are not possible, and practice time is at a premium. He had two practices with his players before coming to the United States.
“We wanted to keep it simple, and didn’t have a lot of tactics in these games,” he said. “I just told our kids to move even when they do not have the basketball. It was a little bit of learning each other.”
The Belgium teams were made up of players from the various club teams. Since Belgium kids do not have a chance to play interscholastic sports, they pay to join teams, then the clubs pay coaches and the club teams pay to rent gyms for practice and games.
“We pay for the period of time we rent the gyms,” said Van Herzeele, who has two sons playing First Division (Belgium’s highest pro level). “You might just get a half court. If we have practice for two or three teams we have to pay a lot of money.”
The late Lee McKinney, while he was coaching at Missouri Baptist University, took teams to Belgium several decades ago and one year he invited Hermann native Dennis Kruse, then the boys basketball coach at Webster Groves High School, to accompany them.
A few years later, Kruse was asked to put on a coaching clinic for the Belgium Federation of Sport and Dance, and 75 men’s and women’s basketball coaches showed up at a school in Bruges for his sessions.
That’s about the time Kruse met Bob Hubrecht, who was chairman of the International Athletic Foundation based in Antwerp, Belgium. Van Herzeele was part of that group that brought teams to west St. Louis County for a couple of decades, but at that time he was not coming to the U.S. with the teams. Kruse, who lives in Chesterfield, was helping Hubrecht organize the trips and find host families.
In 2014 Van Herzeele, then assistant organizer, accompanied the Belgians to Hermann and that’s when he realized the teams needed more games while they were in the States. That year he started Youth Sports Exchange (YSE) and organized the trips for the Belgium teams to the U.S. A couple years ago they stopped in Peoria, Ill., for scrimmages on their way to Hermann and Washington.
“Dennis Kruse gave me the name of Grant Young four years ago, and that winter I made a special trip to Washington High School to see Grant,” Van Herzeele said. “He agreed we should scrimmage. I asked for information of more coaches so we could network, and that’s when I was given the name of Chris Simmons in Union. So three years ago we scheduled a scrimmage with Chris’ team.”
Van Herzeele said he also met Jeff Hamlett, assistant principal at St. Clair, four years ago and that opened the door for another scrimmage.
“It’s tough preparing our teams to come here because we do not have the facilities. “Our gyms are closed in the summer and other gyms are public and we have to rent to play there. In Belgium you might have 15 teams that want to share one gym, and a youth team will only get an hour and a half of practice.”
Van Herzeele said he is proud that they have two players from YSE now in the highest professional ranks who were on the U.S. trip three summers ago. One of them plays for the Antwerp Giants, the top professional team in Belgium.
He added that bringing the teams to America give many Belgium players an opportunity of a lifetime. Some, like Frederik De Paep, sign up for a second year because their first experience was so enjoyable.
“They have an opportunity to play against high school teams here, and we have an opportunity to play against good coaches,” Van Herzeele said. “They meet and share time with their host American families and that is also different than staying in hotels. We want to give them not only a program about basketball, but the American culture. We want to give them a nice trip in the States.”