No one was more excited about Saturday’s second annual free summer football camp than Katelynn Hardee.

The rising eighth grader at Whittemore Park Middle School got up early Saturday morning to be at the Conway Parks and Recreation Department before 8 a.m. The 13-year-old plans to try out for the B-team at WPMS in the fall, and hoped to learn more about the game and enhance her skills at Saturday’s event. Her enthusiasm matched or exceeded that of many of the males who joined Hardee for the camp.

“I just love the sport,” Hardee said. “I want to play center. I’m good at snapping the ball.”

WPMS Coach Aaron “Bam” Wilkes already knows who Hardee is. He plans to give her the same consideration as the boys who try out for his team in August.

A University of South Carolina fan, Hardee got an opportunity to meet several former Gamecocks who served as coaches for Saturday’s event. Connor McLaurin drove all the way from Raleigh, N.C., where he is an account manager with ThyssenKrupp, a German multinational conglomerate that focuses on industrial engineering and steel production. McLaurin played fullback for Steve Spurrier at USC and Everette Sands was his position coach.

McLaurin came to Conway for Sands’ inaugural Working Equals Success Fundamental Free Summer Football Camp (WESFFC) in 2017 and was back for Saturday’s second annual event.

“When Coach Sands called and asked it was a no-brainer,” McLaurin said. “I’ll be here every year I can be. This is our way of giving back. It’s a good way to teach them the skills of the game and set them up for good opportunities in the future. We were blessed with opportunities and it’s time to give these kids the same chance to grow and learn what really matters. Some of these guys will be playing somewhere one day.”

Sands, whose WESFFC Foundation offered a free camp for 142 local youngsters this past summer, was delighted to see many of this past year’s coaches return.

“I’m really excited,” the running backs coach at the University of Texas in San Antonio said. “The thing that’s touching to me is how excited the coaches who came last year are about coming back. We have most of the guys from last year and some new faces.”

Former Gamecock tight end Justice Cunningham was another returning coach. He grew up in Pageland and played for Central High School before enrolling at USC.

“This is an opportunity I never had when I was growing up,” Cunningham said. “I never had a chance to go to camp. I tell them to believe in themselves. Never say can’t. Never quit.”

A 1989 Conway High School graduate, Sands played football for the Tigers under Chuck Jordan, who was on hand for Saturday’s camp. Current CHS Coach Carlton Terry was also a member of the camp staff.

 Sands also played four years at The Citadel before signing a free agent contract with Baltimore. He then embarked on a coaching career that has included stints with the University of South Carolina, N.C. State, Elon, Ohio University and UTSA.

The camp staff included several of Sands’ former collegiate players as well as a good number of former Conway High School players.

“I enjoy coming out and helping out and giving back,” said George Gause, who played for Conway and USC under Lou Holtz. “I started at the same age.”

Gause, who now works for Santee Cooper, brought his 2-year-old son George III with him.

“I’ll push him toward football, but I’ll leave it up to him,” Gause said. “Whatever he wants to do.”

Gause is expecting a daughter in August.

Another former CHS Tiger player who returned to coach was Gerry Garris of the Class of 1989.

“I enjoy being able to be a mentor to many of the children and pass it on to the next generation and give back to the community that has given so much to me,” Garris said.

Although he loves Conway, Garris finds his allegiance split several ways these days when it comes to high school athletics.

“My wife is a (Myrtle Beach) Seahawk and our kids go to Carolina Forest,” he said.

At least the entire clan can pull for hometown Coastal Carolina University, which is Garris’ alma mater.

Sands was very pleased with how Saturday’s event went. He’s already looking forward to next year.

“We’re very pleased,” he said. “The weather cooperated. It’s warm but not burning up. The kids look like they’re having a good time.”

Sands hopes the camp will do for the participants what playing football did for him.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to give back,” he said. “I grew up in Conway. I love the community. I know how important sports are in young people’s lives.”

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I'm the editor of the Horry Independent, a weekly newspaper in Conway, South Carolina. I cover city hall and courts, among many other subjects. Know of a good story? Call me at 843-488-7241.

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