With a racket in her grasp, Makayla Nunley jumped around, swatting foam balls at the net set up in the Buffalo Bills Healthy Zone Field House.
It was the 10-year-old’s first time playing tennis.
“I like it a lot,” she beamed, “I like the motion and hitting the ball back and forth.”
Makayla was one of 216 girls from 11 city schools who indulged in seven different sports Saturday during Western New York Girls in Sports, a program to expose young girls to various athletic options in hopes they find one in which they can excel. The United Way-coordinated event is held in the spring and fall of each year for girls 12 and younger.
Mary Wilson, the wife of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., launched the initiative in 2006 and describes it as “her baby.”
“It’s so fabulous to introduce them to all the sports here,” she said. “It means a great deal to me.”
The field house was sectioned off to accommodate each sport: soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, rowing, softball and track.
The girls, participants in Buffalo’s Closing the Gap/Say Yes program, were instructed in the fundamentals of the sports. Members of the University at Buffalo’s women’s track-and-field and Canisius College’s softball teams, along with representatives from the West Side Rowing Club, Niagara Frontier Jr. Olympic Volleyball Club, Medaille College and Buffalo Soccer Club provided the lessons. The girls spiked balls in one station, rowed – using a ergometer – in the next, and raced in a relay in another.
“The girls are really excited and really engaged,” said Kevin Nugent, an instructor with the rowing club and a coach at Mount Saint Mary’s Academy. “There’s some competitiveness, too. They like the reward factor so they want to work hard. It’s great to see.”
Mary Wilson’s mother was a physical education teacher and she introduced her daughter to tennis at the age of 9.
“I played for 50 years, and now I’m a golfer,” she said, adding that sports have been a big part of her life. She said exposing girls to sports fortifies them with core values.
“It teaches integrity, judgment, sportsmanship, perseverance, confidence, responsibility, honesty, respect and courtesy – all while you’re having fun,” she said.
All participants got a chance to sample each of the sports offerings.
“It’s exciting and nice to see girls playing sports instead of boys,” said Cortinea Smith, a fifth-grader at Westminster Community School, who was new to the event.
Sixth-grader Samantha Kane has participated in the program since the third grade and was the first one to hand in her permission slip for Saturday’s event.
“It’s so much fun, I get to hang out with my friends, and I like playing sports,” the 11-year-old said.
Makayla, a student at Lorraine Academy, enjoyed her introduction to tennis so much, she said ,“I want to play more tennis after today.”