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Swish!Dietz reaches Elks Hoop Shoot National Championships

NBA all-time great Wilt Chamberlain made just 41 percent of his free throw attempts during a stellar career that included four MVP awards. Shaquille O’Neal, a 15-time NBA All-Star, made just 53 percent of his career free throw attempts.

When Cole Dietz shoots his free throws from the same distance, he averages better than 92 percent.

You might say that Chamberlain and O’Neal had the pressure of making their shots during high intensity situations.

But so has the 10-year-old Dietz.

And while he might not have stepped to the line with thousands of people watching like Chamberlain and O’Neal, it could be argued that he faced just as much pressure in his competitions in front of hundreds of spectators with advancement hanging in the balance.

The one major difference is that Dietz made his high-pressure free throws — time-and-time again.

Dietz is the local, district, state, and regional champion of the Elks Hoop Shoot Free Throw Contest in the 10-11-year-old age group. He will compete for the National Championship in Chicago on April 21.

Early Start

The Lehighton fourth-grader, the son of JC and Louann Dietz, began hanging around basketball courts with his father when he was just two-years-old. JC Dietz has had assistant boys basketball coaching stints at Schuylkill Haven, Tamaqua and Lehighton High Schools.

“Cole picked up a basketball and would shoot for fun all the time,” said JC Dietz. “When he was five-years-old, he would even join in the shooting drills at Tamaqua that the high school players would do.”

By the time he was nine years old, his father had moved from being an assistant coach at Tamaqua to Lehighton, and Cole was participating in foul shooting drills with the Indians’ varsity and JV teams. At that age, he would take his shots from 12 feet out rather than the regulation distance of 15 feet from the basket.

“Most kids at that age would jump shoot foul shots to get more power behind their throws, but I helped Cole learn how to bend and use his legs to have more accuracy without jumping, “ said JC Dietz.

Cole also had to change other aspects of his free throw shooting technique. He places his right hand slightly off the center of the ball to generate more power in his shot and uses his left hand to help guide his throws.

His pre-shot routine at the line is always the same.

“I take two dribbles, I spin the ball toward me, and I shoot for the front of the rim,” he said.

In his first official 8-year-old competition, Cole won the local Elks Hoop Shoot Contest in Tamaqua. He followed that performance winning the district championship at Danville. Then he was on to the state championship at Penn State where he finished second, losing by one shot.

“Cole wasn’t terribly upset,” said JC, “But he told his mother he was determined to get back the next year for another chance to win the state.”

He would have to wait two years before he would get that chance again. At age nine, he won the local contest, but finished second in the district after hitting on 23 of his allotted 25 attempts.

The Road to Chicago

This year, Cole was able to take first place in the local Elks Hoop Shoot, with 19 of 25 free throws made. At the district tournament in Bangor, he converted 20 of 25 free throws, good enough to defeat the rest of the field. So he and his family returned to Penn State, where Cole’s determination from two years ago helped him win the states, hitting on 23 of 25 baskets.

The Elks Hoop Shoot Free Throw Contest comes with strict rules for both the participants and their parents. There is a 15-minute period when qualifiers can warm up. Official competition begins with each contestant picking a card to determine the order of the eight shooters at the state finals. Each shooter is then given a basketball and takes 10 shots in a row for the first round and 15 consecutive attempts in the second round for a total score based upon 25 shots. In the case of a tie, there is a shoot off of five throws at a time. Shoot offs have been known to continue through 35 or 40 attempts before a winner is finally declared.

Spectators must watch in complete silence. No clapping, no shouting encouragement, and no cheering allowed.

“All the families are respectful of the rules,” said Dietz. “In fact, win or lose the contests, the Elks do a great job making it a win-win experience for everyone. They cover hotel expenses and prepare banquets with motivational speakers. In addition, they give all the kids basketballs, jackets, and provide a cake with each of their names on the slices.”

After his victory at Penn State, Cole moved on to the regionals held in Wilkes-Barre. The contest featured state winners from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In the first round, Cole, who was third in the shooting order, was a perfect 10 for 10, taking a one-shot lead over Zachary Frye from New York and a two-shot lead over Derek Martoral from New Jersey.

“I sit behind the foul line so Cole can’t see how nervous I am,” laughed JC Dietz. “ He has nerves of steel anyway like his mother. Sometimes, kids will look over at their parents when they miss, which I think makes the stress worse for them and if they miss a shot or two early in their rounds, you can see they lose confidence and usually miss more.”

“It’s just my nature to stay calm no matter what the situation,” said Louann Dietz. “Of course I’m glad Cole gets that from his mother.”

Martoral finished his second round converting 12 of 15 for a total of 20-for-25. Frye nailed 14 of 15 to end with 23 baskets made. To win the regional contest and qualify for the national tournament in Chicago, Cole had to convert 14 of his second-round 15 attempts.

He calmly walked to the line.

“Take two dribbles, spin the ball, shoot for the front of the rim,” he told himself.

“He sank the first 14 in a row, before his final shot went in and out, so overall his 24 baskets in a row won the regionals by one shot,” said his proud father.

“I never felt nervous,” said Cole. “I never watch the other kids shoot so that helps me. When we go to Chicago, I might be a little nervous, but not about the contest. It’ll be my first time on a plane.”

In the Spotlight

Cole’s success in previous free throw competitions hasn’t gone unnoticed among his peers.

At recess, his friends will rebound for him when he practices. His teachers and his principal at Lehighton Elementary School have taken special notice of him in the classrooms and in the school hallways.

“Cole takes everything in stride,” said JC Dietz. “He only practices free throw shooting for short periods of time. He plays basketball in the Lehighton Booster League and for the In the Zone AAU travel team. He’s practicing for his baseball season now, too.

“Win or lose, I know it will be a great experience for all of us in Chicago. It always comes down to a shot that bounces off the rim and then rolls in or another that does the same thing, but rolls out.”

Outside of his newly acquired stardom, Cole is just a regular kid like all of his friends.

“I like to learn science and math in school, and I like to play the game “Roadblock” on my iPad,” he said.

At the young age of 10, Cole Dietz already understands the science of free throw shooting and what the math is all about when the numbers of his baskets add up.

As far as roadblocks go, leave that challenge to when he plays his video game, because there will be none while he takes his first ever plane flight to the Elks Hoop Shoot National Free Throw Contest in Chicago.

<p>Cole Dietz is congratulated by Elks Hoop Shoot Northeast Central Regional Director Steven Lucus on Saturday after winning the Regional championshipship in the 10-11-year-old division. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p>