HANNIBAL, Mo. -- They gather on Saturdays in the gymnasium at Holy Family Church in Hannibal for a little pickup basketball.
The mix of players ranges from high schoolers like Palmyra junior Ragar McKinney to Quincy University's Evan McGaughey, who recently signed a professional contract in Germany.
Before a game is played, work must be done.
"We split up and work on moves by ourselves, then work on two-on-two stuff and three-on-three stuff," said Cory Miller, The Herald-Whig's Player of the Year who will be at John Wood Community College next season.
Their bond is that they are all disciples of Pure Sweat, a basketball training company that has a handful of coaches around the country working on skills and performance training.
Matt Pugh of Hannibal is one of those coaches, and he's seen his clientele grow from about 10 players two years ago to 115 now. Players range in age, but he concentrates much of his work with high school players.
"Pure Sweat is still small right now, but we're in the infancy of this thing, and we're on the threshold of making a big-time impact on several levels," he said.
That impact is evident on Saturdays at Holy Family.
Four players who were on the Illinois team in the McDonald's Herald-Whig Classic -- Miller, Quincy Notre Dame's Justin Bottorff and Carter Cramsey, and Quincy High School's Garrett Gadeke -- join John Wood Community College players Aziz Fadika and Trey Burrows, Quincy University's Tanner Stuckman and Illinois College's Cody Hildebrand.
"It gets pretty intense," McKinney said.
"It's beautiful basketball. Just beautiful," Miller said.
Like all of Pugh's workouts, there's a specific reason for this group to gather.
"I want them to get a chance to work on their decision-making skills in a setting against players who are of a similar skill level," he said.
Seeing the fruit of his labor, however, brings a smile to Pugh's face.
"It's kind of a selfish treat for me to see them play together and use the skills they've all learned," he said with a laugh.
It's a long way from the summer of 2013, when Pugh wondered if his career in basketball was over.
‘The end of the world'
Pugh played high school basketball in Kansas City and then at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. His first job after graduation was as a junior high school girls coach in Steelville, Mo., and then he was an assistant for Andy Anderson in Canton, Mo., from 2003-06.
His first head coaching position was in Iberia, Mo., where he lasted two years before coming to Hannibal and inheriting a team that had gone 5-20 in its last season.
His best season was in 2011-12 when the Pirates were 22-6 and won the North Central Missouri Conference title, but in five seasons, his teams had a record of 56-75. His last team went 7-19, and he was shown the door by school officials, though he did keep his job as a physical education/credit recovery teacher.
"All I could think of was, ‘What was next?'" Pugh said. "I thought it was the end of the world. I had planned on being here for a long time. Our daughters had just started school, and we had just bought a house.
"I got a message after all of that happened from (JWCC coach) Brad Hoyt. He said, ‘This will be the best thing that ever happens to you.' I thought, ‘How can you say that? Who knows if I will ever coach again?'"
Pugh eventually signed on to be an assistant for Hoyt, and he was part of two teams that advanced to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II national tournament.
While with the Trail Blazers, Pugh also put in motion a plan to start a skill development program. He went to Las Vegas to take certification courses from Ganon Baker, one of the premier basketball skill trainers in the country. He started Pugh Basketball and worked with 10 players, mostly kids he had worked with when he was at Hannibal.
"I knew this was what I wanted to do," he said.
Pugh met Jason Fry, an assistant coach at Missouri Baptist University and the director of skills coaches for Pure Sweat, during a camp in the summer of 2015.
"He plants the seed with me," Pugh said. "He says, ‘I think you'd be a great fit.' I'm super hesitant because I've just started Pugh Basketball, but I went to a couple of their clinics and thought, ‘Man, I really like what they do.' Their belief system is really in line with what I wanted to do.
"It was one of the best things that's ever happened to me."
No wasted time
Pugh started to build the Pure Sweat brand while still teaching in Hannibal and coaching at John Wood. He says the key to the teaching done at Pure Sweat is the small group setting.
"The small groups are kind of the secret sauce," he said. "We do a little individual stuff, but we allow players to take a concept and go against live defenders. We go against rotating defenders. All shots are contested. Everything we do is focused into translating into a game, because if it doesn't, there has to be a better use of our time."
What you won't see at Pure Sweat workouts are drills with cones or chairs, dribbling tennis balls or multiple basketballs. Unlike many summer basketball camps that are a series of games and contests, Pure Sweat workouts are designed with specific outcomes in mind.
"I had been making really good workout players," Pugh said, "but the in-game results weren't there. I could put them through 50 drills, and they could do them flawlessly with perfect footwork, but in a game, they would come down the court in transition and freeze. They weren't getting the visual reps, and that's where everything comes together."
Pugh held an "academy" workout (which involved about 10 players, ranging in age from eighth grade to seniors in high school) at Hannibal High School in tiny Patterson Gymnasium with no air conditioning on a recent summer afternoon. Players from at least five local high schools were in attendance.
Rather than simply work on layups, Pugh had the players shoot multiple kinds of layups. One time through the line, a player would work on getting the ball to the block, squaring up to the basket and jumping off both feet. The next time through, the player would take one dribble, then grab the ball with both hands and hold it over his head as if a defender was trying to poke the dribble away. The player would then land on both feet and shoot a mini hook shot.
Players later did a 3-on-2 drill when the player with the ball didn't have a defender on him, and he would have to read the defense to determine whether to take the ball to the basket, lay it off to a post player or whip it into the corner for a 3-point shot. A third defender would be added to a later drill, and he would start about a half-step behind the man with the ball.
Workouts are 90 minutes long, and the only breaks are about 90 seconds. Get a drink of water, and get back to work.
"When you look at the game, and you look at our workouts, they should be really similar if we want the in-game results everybody wants," Pugh said.
Laney Lantz, a junior at Central High School in Camp Point, Ill., has been working with Pugh for about a year. She sees him at least three times per week during the summer, and she doesn't mind driving an hour one way to work out with him.
"Someone being hard on me is what I need," she said. "He's so intense. His passion for the games helps me figure out things. You can see the game so much different, a little thing, a little play. It's just incredible with such little time that a lot of what I learn from him, I use. I'm way quicker off the dribble. I can use a quick move to get past a defender.
"After going to him one time, I wanted to put in a lot of my time with him. You come out of there with a different perspective. I've learned so much more than I thought I could ever know."
Twenty players, male and female, were named to The Herald-Whig All-Area first team during the 2016-17 season. Nine of those players also work with Pugh, including Lantz.
Miller started working with Pugh during his freshman year at Unity High School in Mendon, Ill. He said Pugh helped him develop offensive moves.
"Instead of a basic crossover or dribbling between my legs, he's taught me a crossover jab and a lot of shoulder movements to go one way or another," Miller said. "We've really been working on getting my shot off quicker.
"You come in to work with him, and you think, ‘I already know this stuff.' But he teaches you so much. I had no idea all of this was part of the game. Before Pure Sweat, I would watch a game as a fan. I'd say, ‘Wow, that was a cool dunk.' Now, I can break down things. I can understand why he got that shot of because he did a certain move. You see everything.
"The game opens up a lot more."
Working with coaches, parents
As a basketball skills trainer, Pugh says it's important to maintain communication with a player's parents and coach. It costs $300 to meet once a week with Pugh for eight weeks, and the cost is $540 to meet with him twice a week for eight weeks. Pugh wants to make sure everybody gets what they want, not what he wants to give them.
"What I think a kid needs to work on may not be what the coach wants them to work on," he said. "We have to get coaches, parents and players all moving in the same direction. It comes down to communication. You have to be in tune with all those moving parts. I fight and struggle with it myself.
"What I ask a coach is, ‘What's the two or three things you want me to lock in on for your player to be great so your team can be good?"
Lantz says Pugh recently spent two days conducting a camp for her team at Central.
"Coach (Matt) Long is always supportive of my doing anything outside of practice," she said. "(Pugh) even calls Coach Long on different things. He's always interacting with my coach."
Miller said he and teammates David Walker and Brennan Begeman would show their Unity teammates the techniques they learned during Pure Sweat workouts.
"Coach (Keith) Carothers was really accepting," Miller said. "I would go to his classroom and just talk to him about things, then go work on it in the gym, and usually he'd say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.'"
Quincy High School coach Andy Douglas has had several players work with Pugh.
"I think (Pugh) has contacted me on every one," he said. "He gets to work on things that we can't cover during practices. I think it's great."
Jermaine Talton, who coaches seventh-grade basketball at Quincy Junior High School, sends his sons Jeremiah, an eighth-grader, and Isaiah, a sixth-grader, to Pugh's workouts. His nephew, C.E. Talton, from Monroe City, Mo., also works with Pugh. He was a first-team all-area selection as a sophomore.
Jermaine says he's seen Jeremiah's knowledge of the fundamentals grow.
"They go at game speed. There's no walking around," Jermaine said. "When my son does Pure Sweat, he's prepared for game speed, and he loves it.
"This is one of the best programs in the area to learn the fundamentals. The game has changed so much, and Pure Sweat has brought kids up to date for where to game has moved."
Brian McKinney not only sends his son, Ragar, three times per week to see Pugh, but two other younger siblings go as well. He says the value of Pugh's teachings won't be evident in just a handful of workouts. In fact, he believes he can tell which kids are Pure Sweat players by just watching a layup line before a game.
"It's the technique. I send my 9-year-old to see him, and I see the benefits from it," Brian said. "I see him in the backyard, and I've seen his footwork evolve. He understands the terminology. He knows what a short corner is. He knows what a hip swivel is. He knows that how a defender reacts, you read the defender. When my daughter went to a camp where there were Pure Sweat instructors, she knew how to line up her fingers on the ball.
"Matt probably wouldn't like for me to say this, but if you go just one time, you're not going to get results. One thing he teaches leads to another. Coaches would be crazy if they didn't like their kids going to see Matt."
Enjoying the summer grind
So who needs to see Pugh?
Many players in grades 5-8 are working with JWCC assistant coach Joel Box, who recently became certified as a Pure Sweat trainer. Pugh says the ideal player is "the serious high school player with a dream of playing at the next level."
Eight of his Pure Sweat clients already are playing at the college level, and he's working with several prep players who would appear to be potential college recruits. However, during the recent academy at Patterson Gymnasium, it would be safe to say that none of the players were on the radar screens of many, if any, colleges.
"If you want to succeed in high school, go to Pure Sweat," Miller said. "If you want to succeed in college, go to Pure Sweat."
Pugh says he enjoys working with players at any level who are "number six through nine" on their team but want to be a starter.
"We do a good job of identifying a player's role," he said. "I want to develop better relationships with their coaches so I can be that filler for what that player needs to learn. I want to help connect the dots to help a kid be great at what he's already good at.
"Players don't understand the amount of work it takes. They don't work enough on the right things."
Pugh says he would like to double the number of players he works with.
And he has no desire to return to the bench.
"I get asked that all the time," he said. "There's about two days a year that I miss having a team. One is opening night, and then any time I'm watching one of our players in a regional or a district championship game. Other than that, I'm doing all the time the one thing that I loved the most about the 11 years that I was coaching.
"That was the summer grind, the sweat."
He has all he wants now.