V.I. Small Fry team competing in hoops tournament on P.R.

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ST. THOMAS - Chicago native Fred Kopko believes the Virgin Islands should have about five athletes getting NCAA Division I basketball scholarships each year.

Kopko, a business consultant and lawyer who lives on St. Thomas, knows a thing about Division I talent. His son, Tom Kopko, played for the University of Notre Dame from 2007 to 2011. Fred Kopko, 57, coached AAU basketball in Chicago - one of the hottest recruiting beds in the country. His Chicago Jaguars twice finished as national runners-up at the U-17 national tournament and never lost to a rival team led by Chicago Bull and NBA All-Star Derrick Rose.

Kopko sees Small Fry basketball as an initial step in getting more V.I. basketball players to the top collegiate level. Founded in 1968, International Small Fry Basketball provides development for shorter boys and girls.

Kopko will coach the Virgin Islands Jaguars, a team he started in late 2011, today through Sunday at a Small Fry tournament in Puerto Rico.

"We'll put about 50 kids in the Division I level out of Chicago every year," Kopko said. "I think you gotta start young, and this is a great organization."

The team of 12 boys from ages 9 to 13 will use the four-game tournament as a tune-up for the 45th International Small Fry Tournament in Orlando, Fla., in April. The year's biggest tournament hosts teams from across the world at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort.

Small Fry is most popular in Chicago, Wisconsin and along the east coast of the U.S., but Puerto Rico is fielding some of the best competition lately, Kopko said.

"It's a serious Small Fry area up there," he said. "They've been dominating Small Fry as of late, so I figured I'd put them in the pressure cooker."

The Jaguars have to be 5-foot-1 or shorter by the Orlando tournament's measurement date of Jan. 23. Players are ineligible if 13 years of age before Sept. 1, 2012.

This will be the Jaguars' first Small Fry experience in Puerto Rico. The program first competed at the Orlando tournament last year. The team placed third in its pool with wins over teams from Chicago and Puerto Rico.

Kopko became involved with Small Fry through his children, and took the Chicago Jaguars to the international championship game in 2000. He and his wife Mary bought property on St. Thomas nearly 20 years ago. Kopko may eventually contribute at the AAU level in the V.I., but has found coaching younger children more enjoyable.

"To me, it's more important that they started playing basketball at a younger age, and that helps at both levels," he said.

Mary Kopko said the Jaguars are planning to host a tournament in March and have invited teams from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

The Jaguars represent Addelita Cancryn Junior High, Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School, Joseph E. Gomez Elementary School, Leonard E. Dober Middle Elementary School, Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic School, Calvary Christian Academy and Yvonne Milliner Bowsky Elementary School.

"Some of the student athletes of this team are all-stars in their elementary and youth basketball leagues," assistant coach Wayne Harvey said. "They've been through six intense weeks of fundamentals. The trip is based on youth development and used as a cultural exchange."

Harvey, whose son Isaiah is on the team, is a Daily News employee.

The Jaguars are sponsored by Caribbean Rose, Inc., and Neltjeberg Bay Enterprises, and all travel, uniforms, league and tournament fees are covered by the sponsorship.

For more information about the V.I. Jaguars, contact the Kopkos at 773-590-4150, Harvey at 513-8740 or email Caribbean Rose at caribbeanrosevi@gmail.com.

V.I. Jaguars

Raekoi Evans, Cancryn

Kemoi Gibbs, Gomez ES

Isaiah Harvey, BCB

Shaquan John-Charles, Cancryn

Charkim Joseph, Dober ES

Collins Joseph Jr., Ss. Peter and Paul

Terrell Lake, Ss. Peter and Paul

Dwayne Lynch, Ss. Peter and Paul

TreMoi Martin, Cancryn

Jourdyn Rawlins, Calvary Christian Academy

Ky'Ode Walters, Bowsky ES

Le Quan George, BCB

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