A youth’s passion in athletics shouldn’t be limited.
Every chance they can get to turn their budding talents into a lifestyle, a college endeavor or maybe even a career, is crucial.
Beyond Limits Athletics (BLA) organized roughly four years ago in Citrus County to give local children and teens those opportunities.
“We genuinely have that goal of helping the kids in their future,” BLA cofounder and director Thomas Vilardi said. “We love that they have a place to go and have fun, but we want them to get something out of the camp; we want them to make friends, we want them to learn a new skill, learn a new hobby.”
Posted high on the wall of BLA’s gym behind the Citrus Springs Church of God off of Deltona Boulevard are 23 photographs. Each photo is of someone who trained with BLA and went onto to pursue a collegiate sport. In 2021, BLA hung up 16 photos.
“We want to try to help kids from this county get to college on athletic scholarships,” said Vilardi, who also coaches basketball at Citrus Springs Middle School and Lecanto High School. “We try to help as many as kids as we can.”
BLA put Haley Herman’s photo up after the 2021 Crystal River High School graduate got accepted to Warner University on a basketball scholarship.
Herman said she started training with BLA when she was a sophomore.
“I knew nothing; I was horrible at basketball, and then they got me to play college ball,” the 18-year-old said, crediting her BLA coach, Jerry Tipton. “It completely turned me around ... I trained every day and worked hard.”
Herman, along with many other former and current high schoolers, volunteers as a BLA counselor for its youth camps and activities.
Tipton, who cofounded BLA with Vilardi, said the organization is about exposing its younger players to better equipment and larger sporting venues.
“We want the athletes in this county to have things that the bigger-city kids have because it’s not fair when they get to high school and they’re just behind,” he said. “Most programs either target the elite. ... We definitely target the elite, but we have programs for beginners and intermediates to become the elite.”
BLA offers — among other activities — summer camps, sports leagues, private trainings, specialized workouts, diet regiments and help for high school seniors to get noticed by college recruiters.
“We want the kids to have as much fun as possible while learning basic fundamentals and getting better,” Vilardi said. “There’s always something going on ... there’s always something for kids to be a part of.”
BLA events are available for homeschooled children, adults and para-athletes as well, and the gym is open on a regular basis to BLA participants, who range from 5 to 23 years old.
“We give them opportunities every day to work in here,” BLA cofounder and volleyball coach Stephen Kusnierz said. “Every day, we give them opportunities for training to get better.”
Sponsors, donors and revenue from its camps, private sessions and traveling leagues support BLA’s efforts.
“We’re always looking for people willing to support our kids ... everything we do is going back toward the kids,” Vilardi said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have sponsors provide opportunities for kids.”
BLA was partway into its youth basketball summer camp over the week of July 19.
Each week over the summer has been dedicated to either basketball, volleyball or a variety of sports. Depending on the week, BLA could have between 40 and 65 campers.
Logan Barbieri, 13, and 12-year-old William Damron were fine tuning their dribbling and shooting on Tuesday, but they’ve been involved with BLA beyond its camp by playing on one of its travel teams.
“I’ve been here four to five days a week,” said Barbieri, who’s been training with BLA since its inception, and is leaving Inverness Middle School to play basketball for Lecanto High School. “It’s great. ... You don’t have to be athletic to be good at sports.”
“In such a small town like this, it’s really helped me a lot,” added Damron, a Lecanto Middle School student and BLA athlete for a year and a half. “You just have to put all the work into it.”
Tipton said he’d like to expand BLA’s seven basketball and two volleyball travel teams by making more of them nationally competitive.
Kids from Tampa, Gainesville and Orlando play for BLA, and BLA's seventh-grade basketball team earned a number of titles and recognitions from tournaments out of state.
“The kids get to travel the country all year, 12 weekends out of the year … we’re going to big cities ... we're walking through colleges ... and they’re learning how to be a team,” Tipton said. “We want more of our teams to get onto that national level and experience those things.”
BLA also wants to bring more outside teams into Citrus County to not just compete in its tournaments but to visit the rest of the local area.
“Citrus County is a good vacation community that we can bring a lot of teams to play games in a weekend,” Tipton said, “and to also enjoy a weekend in our county.”
Vilardi said he’d like to get more children consistently involved with BLA’s yearlong programs.
“There are a lot of kids who come to summer camps or leagues but we don’t see them on a weekly basis; we only see them once a year,” he said. “We’d like to get them in here and help them be successful.”
Herman said putting the time into what BLA has to offer is worth it.
“I’m not athletically inclined, I’m not a natural athlete,” she said. “All it takes is a lot of hard work."