On a warm, sunny morning in early August, Jonatas Melo lofts ball after ball to soccer players streaking toward goal.
The Baltimore Blast midfielder is one of the indoor soccer team’s most dominant passers who has racked up double-digit assists in each of his last three seasons, but today he isn’t running drills with his Blast teammates. Instead, it’s with a group of 13-year-olds at Meadowood Regional Park in Lutherville, Md.
“Good pass! Good pass!” he shouts as a couple of players complete a give-and-go.
A tall girl in long white socks with her back to the goal pivots and rockets a bail into the net, narrowly missing the outstretched hands of the goalie.
“Save that one!” he calls encouragingly as the young keeper picks herself up off the turf.
For the seventh year, Melo is running one of the 25 youth soccer camps the Blast hosts each summer throughout the Baltimore area. About 700 kids, ages 5 to 13, attend each year. The events serve as a way to grow the team’s fan base, help pay the bills and, of course, teach some skills to a bunch of eager students.
From 9 a.m. to noon each day, Melo focuses on a different aspect of the game. Monday is dribbling; Tuesday is passing; Wednesday is shooting; Thursday is skills, and Friday is a fun day with games, pizza and an awards ceremony.
“It’s great. We’ve got kids from all levels, rec, club, some are big [Blast] fans that come watch us play on the field,” Melo said. “They want to meet the players and try to learn a little bit.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the Blast’s 2020-21 season, making this year’s camps especially sweet, Melo said, because he was able to get back in the community, making connections with young fans and imparting some of his 15 years of professional soccer experience to the campers. It also means fans will soon be able to return to Towson University’s SECU Arena, where the Blast plays its 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 biggest athlete, but these kids, they don’t care, they look at me as their hero,” he said with a smile. “I love working with kids because they look at you and they 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 the Blast’s success, head coach David Bascome said. This year, Bascome split up the camp’s structure into blocks to make sure campers are continuously engaged during each session — from getting their feet on the ball as much as possible to constantly changing drills to make sure they don’t get bored. But more important is establishing an emotional connection between camper and counselor.
A young fan might get an opportunity to quickly meet a player and grab an autograph after the game, Bascome said, but continuous interactions during a weeklong camp could change their life forever.
“The Baltimore Blast, for 40 years, has been creating positive memories for fans, for players and it’s empowering,” he said. “And that’s what has to continue to happen.”
At the other end of the turf field at Meadowood, another Blast player, Keegan Kelly, helps organize a group of players into a one-on-one drill. Two players sprint toward a ball that is rolled between them.
“Put on the moves, put on the moves!” Kelly calls to the campers as one tries to juke out 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 with the Blast after signing his first professional contract this spring.
When he was younger, Kelly participated in the Blast camps and later helped run them during his dad’s tenure. As a participant, he was the kind of camper who would pepper the Blast players with questions about their game, how they prepared and more. Now he’s on the receiving end of those same questions.
“It’s wild to think about, I was one of these kids in this camp and to have a few of them come up and ask me like, ‘What is it like signing a contract?’ … ‘What do you recommend to get where you are?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t even know, I’ve got to think about this,'” Kelly said.
Kelly soon started to share pieces of advice: start practicing good habits, cut bad foods out of your diet and, most important of all, work on your fundamentals.
“Camps are fun, obviously, but the kids who have those aspirations to make it to the next level” have to start working early, Kelly said. “That’s what camp is about for the most part is trying to cement those fundamentals.”
As the season approaches, with the prospect of playing their first competitive soccer in almost two years, Kelly and Melo said they are training hard to be fit as they enter training camp. The team will have a new coach in Bascome, a longtime player-turned-assistant coach.
Bascome has brought a new philosophy to the team while keeping parts of the system he helped build with Danny Kelly intact. What hasn’t changed is the team’s emphasis on continuing to reach young, up-and-coming players in the Baltimore region and making sure the kids have fun while they learn the game.
“It’s fantastic to be able to be able to be around the kids and be able to educate them,” Keegan Kelly said. “To have these experiences that they hopefully won’t forget anytime soon.”
Photo Credit: Brooks DuBose/PressBox