Naples Daily News Weekend Digest Miss something this week? Catch up on a few of our big stories in this quick digest

Collier County betting on pickleball as a draw for years to come

Collier County crews are scrambling to get ready to host the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in April.

The weeklong event is expected to draw about 5,000 spectators to East Naples Community Park, as some of the top pickleball payers from around the world compete in the inaugural open.

The county needs to build 12 new permanent courts along with six temporary ones for the event, which will include as many as 1,000 players in a mix of highly competitive and more casual events. The work, which will cost about $250,000, will start next week after commissioners streamlined construction by waiving a public bid process to make sure the courts will be ready in time.

The type of surface the county is using — called DecoTurf — takes about a month to settle, leaving just a few weeks to start the work in time to make the tournament, county officials said.

The pricey surface is the same used in Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open Tennis Championships and for tennis events in each of the last two Olympics, said Terri Graham, founder of the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. The surface gives a little more bounce than asphalt, and is more forgiving on a player's knees, joints and ankles, she said.

Immokalee Soccer Pit Cobras teach more than soccer for children who commit to school

When Jesus Velazco started to play soccer for Manny Touron as a fourth grader, he had no idea how much the experience and the coach would mean to him.

"I spent more time training, playing soccer, and ignored the negativity that happened both at home and in the streets of Immokalee," said Velazco, now 20 and a sophomore at Colgate University in New York.

Velazco followed Touron to the team, the Immokalee Soccer Pit Cobras, a club that he said is much more than the sport of soccer. It was about developing players personally and professionally.

Between 300 and 400 Immokalee kids have participated in the soccer program since Touron started the club in 2008. He's got trophies in the clubhouse to celebrate their success. But it's players like Velazco that show the program's greatest achievement. Players are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA and to stay in school.

"We want them to be students first and players after," Touron said. "If they are not students, they can't play."

Veteran school administrator adds personal touch to history lessons

Ollie Phipps needs little more than a captive audience. Give him a microphone, he says, "and it's on."

Recently, his audience was a room full of elementary schoolers, who are immediately entranced by Phipps' style. Imagine a black preacher and a congregation hanging on his every word.

His voice booms from the start: "Usually I say, why do we study black history? And they all go 'Martin Luther King!' And then I say, 'Well who was the first slave? And they say, 'Martin Luther King!'"

Phipps is now talking over roaring laughter.

"I ask, 'Who refused to change seats on the bus?' 'Martin Luther King!'" he jokes with the kids, setting up a presentation on African-American history. "Now, Martin Luther King Jr. was a bright man. But someone had to start for him to be a great man. So I'm going to take you all the way back: from the start, to the present, to the future."

"Oh yeah," one student says. For the next half-hour, they follow his voice back to Africa, and onto the ships that brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to American shores, and eventually through the civil rights movement — cue in Martin Luther King, Jr.

The adults on the periphery of the room are familiar with what Phipps is saying, but for many of the young students he is talking to, much of history is still breaking news.

Phipps, 53, is an assistant principal at Shadowlawn Elementary in East Naples. Those who work with him say his energy is infectious and his smile perennial. An artist, his ink portraits of historical figures, celebrities and former students are on display throughout Collier County. His rhythm and musical talent have for years influenced the marching band at Barron Collier High.

5 Collier teachers surprised with 2016 Golden Apple awards

As a golden apple floated past her classroom at Tommie Barfield Elementary, a teacher at the school opened her arms and said, "Welcome back."

The shiny fruit would end up in the hands of third grade teacher Nancy Garousi, one of five teachers who on Thursday received a Golden Apple award — Collier County's top teacher honor.

Garousi was surprised inside her classroom with the award, which recognizes inventive teachers with novel approaches to learning. When Garousi took hold of her apple, Tommie Barfield boasted four Golden Apple recipients in the building, including two recognized in 2009 and 2004, and the school's principal, who won in 2001.

"Ms. Garousi just has what it takes," Principal Karey Stewart said. "She pushes her students and yet they meet the expectations."

Similar surprises were repeated at four other classrooms throughout the county Thursday — which marked the award's 26th year. Presented by the local education foundation, Champions For Learning, the apple deliveries are the culmination of a monthslong process that singles out the county's top educators.

This year, the recipients of the Golden Apple award are Jenny Godley and McKenzie Morton from Naples High School, Eric Mazurkewitz from Immokalee High School, Bruce Peters from Lorenzo Walker Technical College, and Garousi.

Maybe not a world record yet, but Goldie is one big python

David Shealy is absolutely certain that the world's largest captive snake is living, quietly and carefree, behind glass at his Trail Lakes Campground.

He's also absolutely certain that a family of skunk apes — think a smelly swamp version of Big Foot — roams the Big Cypress National Preserve and can be drawn out of hiding with a well-placed pot of campfire lima beans. But that's another story.

This is about Goldie.

Named for her fist-sized yellow head, the reticulated python has lived since 2003, curled up in increasingly large wood-and-glass-and-wire enclosures, at a makeshift animal exhibit behind the Trail Lakes gift shop.

Raccoon pelts sell for $50 there. Alligator feet go for $15. An alligator skull, painted in camouflage, has a $400 price tag hanging out of its toothy mouth. Times are tough at Trail Lakes.

The campground along Tamiami Trail in Ochopee doubles as the home of the Skunk Ape Research Center, which Shealy founded and once petitioned Collier County to promote with tourist tax dollars. He had no takers.

He's hoping to do better with Goldie.

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