MOREHEAD CITY — A training session at the Sports Center’s Performance Zone is no cupcake.
The new facility on Bridges Street is not a place to “hang out.” It’s a place where student-athletes find their confidence and hone their athletic abilities, a place where people go to shore up their health and meet new fitness goals.
Trainer and program founder Grant Kelley is a fixture at many of the county’s student-athlete signing days, the payoff moment when years of work turn into a chance to compete at the next level.
The work comes first, though. On an average Tuesday night session, a group of roughly a dozen student-athletes ranging from sixth-graders to seniors in high school are grinding.
Kelley plugs in the music over a portable speaker to get things started. They start out with simple stretches, followed by sprint work. Then they strap on chest harnesses attached to weighted sleds and work on their acceleration and explosiveness. The circuit training takes the athletes outside in the fresh air to toss medicine balls, then back inside for more cardio work and reps with dumbbells and the power rack.
The work is rigorous, but the results are tangible. Student-athletes are able to join 12-week programs that take place in spring, summer, fall and winter.
“We do testing at the beginning, and you can see what you need to work on and what you need to get better at,” West Carteret senior Grayson Edwards said. “That’s what you’ll focus on during the session, and if you put the time and effort in and challenge yourself, you’re going to have way better test scores at the end.”
Edwards has been training with Kelley since she was in middle school. She joined because her friend, Courtney Tyndall, was already training with him.
“My brothers (Michael and Davis) both worked out with him in high school,” Tyndall said, “so one day my mom signed me up, and I never stopped going.”
While Tyndall and Edwards have been with Kelley since he was based out of an upstairs suite at Sports Center, other students like West junior Jaxon Whitaker have only been training with Performance Zone for a short time.
“I’ve been working with Grant for a little less than a year,” Whitaker said. “It’s pretty intense, but it works. He’s got my vertical up 10 inches.”
Kelley started Performance Zone in 2014 when he first joined Sports Center. Back then it was just called “Grant Kelley Fitness.” Eight years later, the list of student-athletes he has worked with is too long to recall.
Several of the program’s alums went on to play college sports, such as Davis Tyndall of West who pitches at Division I Western Carolina, Grace Tulevech who plays volleyball at Division I Lafayette and Victoria Healey who rows at Division I Jacksonville University.
Other upcoming grads are headed that route, too, like East Carteret’s CeCe Johnson who committed to track and field at Division I UNC-Wilmington and Summer Nelsen who is committed to play softball at Division II Erskine College.
Not everyone goes the college sports route. For some, like Tyndall who is headed to UNC-Chapel Hill and Edwards who will be at N.C. State in the fall, organized sports will end with high school, but what they learned with sports and training will stay with them.
“For me, it boosted my confidence on the court and off it,” Tyndall said. “That level of training just made me feel better when I was playing, gave me more stamina. I felt like it has made me a better athlete in general. That’s something that will stick with me.”
Kelley has loved to see his students achieve athletic success, but it’s the added belief in themselves he sees that means the most to him.
“The goals of the program are to help them on their journey from a young age where most kids are lacking confidence to becoming confident in the weight room and the classroom,” Kelley said. “That confidence grows, and then the athletic ability follows.”
He added, “I find more pride in seeing kids who have zero confidence become very confident in themselves than seeing the athletic success.”
Kelley is a county alum himself, a 2007 grad from West who played baseball at North Greenville University in South Carolina before graduating from Greensboro College with a bachelor’s in exercise science.
In 2017, the Sports Center renovated a downstairs space for Performance Zone. As the programs grew, so did the demand for space. It moved one more time in November, now hosting a space big enough for more circuits and exercises.
The room has power racks, large and small punching bags, cross trainers, exercise bikes, rowers, climbers, boxes of varying sizes and more. The facility has restrooms and a full shower available, too.
“We started thinking about moving in summer, then we found this space,” Kelley said. “It met a lot of our needs in terms of size and the open floor plan. It was a perfect spot, so we pulled the trigger in June. It was funded by Sports Center. They bought everything in here. It’s another leap forward.”
Performance Zone offers programs for both adults and adolescents. They vary in degree, but they otherwise mostly resemble each other.
“For the kids, it’s about getting them ready for college or high school ball and the different programs that they’re heading into,” Kelley said. “For adults, it’s more about getting healthier. It’s five days a week, with three days of strength and three days of cardio.”
When a student-athlete starts a new seasonal program, their measurables are logged and compared at the end of the program. Those measurables can include the 10- and 20-yard dash, vertical jumps, broad jumps, the pro agility test upper and body strength.
“Grant is really good about designating workouts that coincide with your sport,” Whitaker said. “Your session might look a lot different if you’re a volleyball player or a football player or a basketball player.”
Whitaker will be a rising senior for the Patriot basketball program in the fall. His sessions often consist of heavy kettle bell swings for his hip flexor, Bulgarian split squats to help with his quads and power cleans to help with his triple extension so that his knees, ankles and hips are working together.
“For me and (teammate Cason Collins), he’s trying get us more explosive, so if we’re running back on defense, we can stop on a dime. We want to be able to keep on jumping and sprinting at full power without running out of energy.”
Whitaker has worked with Performance Zone for less than a year but has seen major results.
“With my position, it has definitely helped in getting rebounds and blocking shots,” he said. “He’s got me jumping out of the gym now.”
A student-athlete like Whitaker entered the program as a varsity-level player looking to get in better shape. There are others who are still growing, still waiting to make the transition from middle school to high school or from jayvee to varsity.
“My biggest jump was between eighth grade and freshman year,” Edwards said. “You come in playing such a slow level of volleyball from middle school, and it’s hard to make that transition. The level of play is so different, but with what we did with Performance Zone, Courtney and I were just ready.”
Student-athletes already have a tough practice schedule during their sport’s season, but keeping fitness up in the offseason has its benefits too.
“I think it definitely helps to keep working in the offseason,” Edwards said. “Otherwise, you come back in the summer and you have to start all over again from square one.”
Edwards and Tyndall will both graduate next week, meaning their time with Performance Zone is over, but they’re both grateful for the time spent there and the support they received from Kelley.
“I’ve loved it ever since joining,” Edwards said. “It’s a great environment, and it has really helped my performance on the court. Grant was always someone you could go to for advice. He’s a great person. I’m glad to have him in my corner.”
Tyndall added, “He always makes it a priority to see a couple of our games throughout the season. I don’t think I would be as accomplished an athlete if not for working out there.”
The next seasonal program is for the summer, starting June 13 and running through Aug. 19. Signups are open and will continue until the class fills.