Steve RobinsonIn the world of Special Olympics, family is a component of athletes’ lives that receives a high ranking along with all the things it’s dedicated to teach them: Teamwork, sportsmanship, a sense of belonging, some individual skills, and self-worth.

But at many of these events I’ve covered over the years, the parents, grandparents, and siblings come out but sometimes, not as much, any of the siblings’ friends to share in the experience.

Another thing that is missing at Special Olympics competitions that so-called “normal” sporting events have is cheerleaders. This was, after all and for all intent and purposes, a high school basketball game. When was the last time you went to a high school game and there were no cheerleaders?

With regard to that aspect of the event, Rachel Roth, a senior at El Paso Gridley High School, may have started something March 17 at Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus. Roth talked a few of her fellow EPG cheerleaders into coming out to cheer for EPG’s Special Olympics Basketball team during their run for a title.

Roth is the sister of Jordan Peacher, a member of EPG’s team which was making its second appearance at State Basketball. She brought her friends to cheer on the Titans against their first opponent, Rushville Special Olympics.

That meant EPG senior Maddie Morrison, and juniors Lacey Kiefer, and Kailyn Waldemar, all of whom cheer for EPG on sidelines at football and basketball games, would put their skills to use cheering for another Titans team. Morrison said the girls, “figured ‘why not?’ because the joy that the sport brings to Jordan and the other players is greater than anything else we can do for them. It’s just a small act and it lights up their world.”

That meant EPG’s team, and head coach Cindy Martorana and her troops were very happy to see the foursome shaking pompoms and lending encouragement when needed during their first game. EPG team members are: Peacher, Andrew Hartman, Zoey Slightom, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, and Courtney Adkins.

“Jordan and his teammates have talked about coming to State for weeks,” Morrison said. The team qualified for State at District competition, held at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center in January. Morrison said the Special Olympics team members were the ones who planted the idea of having the cheerleaders come to the State Tournament. After the girls agreed to come, Morrison added, team members would say to them when they saw them in school hallways, “Can’t wait to see you!”

“I think I will get joy from seeing this team’s faces light up when they see us at their game,” Kiefer added. “I think it’s just awesome.”

For Waldemar, her experience with Special Olympics came earlier from knowing a cousin who once participated in one of its programs.

Peacher’s Sister Helps With His Basketball Game Skills: Roth said the four siblings in her family, including Peacher, regularly shoot hoops in a local park. In addition to Roth and Peacher, they are joined by an older brother and a younger brother. The foursome spends that time bonding and helping Peacher bolster his playing skills.

As a result of that practice, my brother has excelled quite a lot,” Roth said. And Peacher has returned the favor by attending EPG football and basketball games, to watch his sister and her fellow cheerleaders while taking in Titans games.

What the girls who shook pompoms and cheered got out of this surprised me. Not because of what one of them said but because what she said didn’t seem to take any prodding from the questions I asked (sometimes, for teens of any age, the thought is there, it seems, but the wording isn’t, but it eventually comes forward with a little guidance).

But Morrison had the exact thought for the situation: “This experience we get out of this is greater for us because it gives us a whole different perspective on how to look at life.”

“These athletes take the smallest event and for them, it’s big,” Morrison said. “For us, it’s just the experience of coming here and seeing them happy.”

And after Saturday’s double overtime 38-36 win over Rich Township Saturday at Shirk Center to win their division’s championship, you’ve never seen a happier bunch of players and family members.

As a result, everyone got something out of the experience.

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – El Paso Gridley High School’s Special Olympics Basketball team, having made it to the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament March 17 and 18, came away with a first place medals and a team trophy for their efforts, needing double overtime March 18 to defeat Rich Township School District’s Special Olympics team, 38-36.

EPG’s tallest player is Brady Neill, at six foot tall. The rest of the squad range between five foot and six foot tall. Rich Township had three players who were at least six foot tall making them at least a head taller than most of EPG’s squad, and looked to have the upper hand by halftime. EPG found themselves down 10-8 after one quarter and 20-12 by halftime. But by the end of the third quarter, the Titans finally managed to outscore Rich Township 10-8 in the third quarter to pull within six, 28-22 to open the fourth quarter.

From there, EPG’s noted defensive wall and some man-to-man opposition to Rich Township’s drives to the basket only allowed Rich Township to score one bucket in the final quarter while EPG tallied eight points. As a result, when the final buzzer sounded, the game needed an overtime, tied at 30-30. Andrew Hartman’s layup with 48 seconds left in regulation coupled with a pesky defense led by Neill and Jordan Peacher, getting in the way of opponents trying for a last shot with the clock winding down forced the need for the extra period.

Both teams exchanged two baskets each in the first overtime, leading to the period ending with a 34-all tie, forcing the second overtime. Hartman scored twice in the second overtime to lift EPG to victory and their second consecutive first place finish in State Basketball. For his efforts, Hartman scored 26 points in the contest, scoring that amount for the second day in a row, having done it Friday against Rushville.

“They did it, and I knew they could,” said head coach Cindy Martorana following the hard-fought victory, reflecting on the effort her team put forth. . For sportsmanship, among other reasons, referees awarded Peacher a “Spirit Of The Game” honor from this contest.

“I like to score points,” Hartman said calmly after the championship game. He said playing against a team with bigger players “was a little hard but we took our shots and we won.”

“We weren’t concerned that we might not win,” explained team member Courtney Adkins.

Team Gets Prep Rally And Sendoff Local Police, Fire, EMTs: But earning first place wasn’t the only perk Martorana’s team got to enjoy before the tourney even started, according to one player’s parent.

Jackie Peacher, mother of Jordan Peacher, explained the team got a sendoff for State Basketball befitting of any team going for gold or a championship. She said that sendoff to State included a pep assembly at the local elementary school in Gridley so those kids could share in the experience.

Special Olympics IllinoisAt the high school, students lined the hallways, the team passing through a gauntlet of well-wishing classmates on their way to waiting vehicles. All of EPG High School’s students gave the team members high-fives, explained Natalie Adkins, mother of EPG team member Courtney Adkins, who is an EPG High School senior this year. That was followed by El Paso Police and Fire Departments giving the team an escort from town, complete with lights and sirens, to Route 24, on their way to I-39, where they would begin the drive to Normal.

“I was happy and excited to see it,” Andrew Hartman said. He added his mother has the event on video to treasure the moments.

Jordan Peacher said he saw people standing outside the local Casey’s General Store waving as the caravan went by. “I saw them outside there and so, I rolled down my window and waved back,” he said.

“It was very, very cool,” Natalie Adkins said. “We do it for our other athletes that go to State. And to do it for our Special Olympics team was very cool.”

“I thought it was really wonderful,” Jackie Peacher said of the experience. “The school does that kind of thing for the other athletes when their team goes to State. It was great that the community got together for our Special Olympics team. It was just amazing.”

Titans Start Tourney With Win Over Rushville Special Olympics: The Titans opened the tournament at Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus with a convincing 64-22 victory over Rushville Special Olympics. The Titans scored 16 points each in the first two quarters, leading 16-4 in the first quarter and 32-16 by halftime. The Titans added to their point production in the third quarter, outpacing their opponents, 12-6, in the quarter to a 44-20 lead going a fourth quarter where they demonstrated a 20-0 run en route to their first victory. Andrew Hartman a “Spirit Of The Game” honor. Andrew’s parents are Samantha Hartman, and Alfred Della Hartman.

Andrew said receiving the award “makes me happy.” Alfred Hartman, his father, said, following the team’s first tournament game. “We’ve been going to the park to shoot hoops when the weather’s nice.” Since his son has been involved in Special Olympics, he added, his son has shown some leadership on the court. Andrew’s mother, Samantha, added, “Andrew is awesome and he did a great job today.”

Steve RobinsonTo say El Paso Gridley High School’s Special Olympics basketball team got off to a rocky start while still seeking their first win on the court is an understatement. In the middle of their inaugural season in 2015, the team got into last year’s district tournament due to another team’s forfeit. But the Titans lost their only State Tournament game – in fact the only game they had last year.

This basketball season had been a bit of a rocky matter for head coach Cindy Martorana’s troops, too, as they entered the Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout, part of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament. Knisley was on the Holiday Tournament’s organizing committee starting in 2002 and brought the idea of incorporating a Special Olympics tournament into the larger event, known to many as The Classic.

After Knisley died from cancer in 2005, The Classic’s organizing committee renamed the Special Olympics event The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout. A few years ago, they added a second day to it. Doing that helped the number of teams participating double from eight to 16.

The 2016 Knisley Memorial Tournament is the first one EPG has been a part of. And they were doing it to try to get out from under a losing record, a discouraging 0-5. They entered the Knisley Shootout knowing they would play against two more-established teams. “We’re very good kids and we play hard,” said EPG player Jordan Preacher.

“They’re learning about competition and that we can’t win all the time,” said Martorana, who coaches the team with an assistant who was, at one time, also an EPG alum who played on the school’s boys’ basketball team, Carter Tria. “We’ve had to show our players that improving is our win.”

The players on the team range in age from sixth grade to a high school junior. They are: Zoey Slightom, Andrew Hartman, Caleb Turner, Brady Neill, Geneva Powell, Courtney Adkins, and Preacher.

Martorana said she wants the community to know that “my athletes play and practice as hard as all other athletes. They are just as dedicated to their sport as well. They are truly wonderful athletes and I’m very lucky that I have these athletes and their families to work with because they are all so wonderful.”

Some of the additional support the team has received has come from a place one might not think of immediately, and in an unusual form, too. EPG Freshman/Sophomore team coach Justin Kissinger said he sends a few of his players to Martorana’s team practices “to help out and work with her team and help my team get involved in the community.”

Doing that, Kissinger said, “allows my players to get a chance to give back and realize that life isn’t all about basketball, but it’s about helping others and making a difference in the community they’re involved in. Once they’ve done that, my players have gone back to help out there again.”

Before pitching in to help EPG’s team, Kissinger’s team members did the same volunteering to help teams from Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR, co-funded by the parks and recreation departments from both the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington.

Special Olympics Illinois had managed the Knisley Shootout before his death up until 2012, but handed it over to Bloomington Parks and Recreation in 2013, the result of time constraints faced by Special Olympics Illinois’ home office in Normal. Maggie Rutenbeck, who oversees competitive events for SOAR, now manages the Knisley Tourney.

Rutenbeck said getting in two games on a regulation college basketball court on the ground floor of Illinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center, complete with officials refereeing games and giving the players the feel of a tournament “is a great experience” for all concerned.

Lori Slightom’s daughter, Zoey, plays on EPG’s Special Olympics team. Zoey has been involved with Special Olympics since she was a 4-year-old who became active with Special Olympics’ “Young Athletes” program. “In addition to basketball, Zoey has done bowling, and track and field,” Slightom said of her daughter’s activities.

“For my daughter to be able to participate and succeed in something is amazing,” Slightom added.

And as wonderful as the team’s support is appreciated, EPG was still looking for a win as the tourney opened. In their first game, the Titans found themselves facing the Blue Rhinos from Pekin Park District-supported Illinois River Valley Special Recreation Association.. The Titans still found themselves in search of a victory, however, after that game, due to a 37-23 loss. But I can tell you there was no giving up on the part of Martorana’s players.

In EPG’s second “Knisley” game, Martorana’s charges had a bit of luck come their way against a team known as the SOAR Unicorns. After beginning the game trailing the Unicorns, 10-8 after one quarter, EPG exploded, outscoring their opponents in the second half, 26-0, on the way to a 34-10 first victory.

EPG celebrated the win at lunch following the game and now looks forward to a district playoff game Jan. 22 at Shirk Center. If EPG wins a gold medal at district, they would advance to the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball Tournament held March 17-19 at both Shirk Center and Horton Field House on Illinois State University’s campus.

EPG’s patience for a win paid off and now, in about three weeks, Martorana’s team will try to conquer their next challenge: To win again so they can get back to the State Tourney. Here’s hoping that their luck continues.

By Steve Robinson | December 29, 2012 - 10:35 pm
Posted in Category: Special Olympics, The Normalite

At 14, Carla Spinks is not real talkative when she meets a new person for the first time. But that may be because the Normal Community High School freshman lets her skills on the basketball court speak for her.

Carla plays on a team called SOAR Orange Crush, formed as one of four teams organized by Special Opportunities Available In Recreation, jointly sponsored by both Normal Parks and Recreation Department and the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department. In 2013, SOAR will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Carla and her teammates participated in the Ron Knisley Memorial Special Olympics Shootout on Dec. 28, part of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament. In addition to Orange Crush, the other three teams SOAR brought with them were SOAR Pink Panthers; SOAR Purple Monsters; and SOAR Green Machine. They were four of the 14 teams that participated in this year’s event. The other teams came from agencies that help people with intellectual disabilities, some who brought more than one team. The agencies were located in Peoria, Pekin, Champaign, Springfield, and Jacksonville.

Carla has had previous experience playing softball for the Dirt Devils, a team that is part of the Bloomington-Normal Girls Softball Association (BNGSA), too. She enjoyed that, explained her mother, Christina. But as time went on, Christina explained, Carla felt the competition at that level was becoming too intense for her. Her daughter was seeking a level of the game that, for her circumstances, was enjoyable without competition becoming the over-riding issue.

Having a developmental disability, but wanting to enjoy herself while still seeking to feed her competitive spirit, Carla sought an outlet to help her continue to enjoy the game. Carla’s friend, Bailey Kaiser, had a suggestion: Why not join Kaiser and play in Special Olympics? Carla decided to give it a try.

“It’s pretty good so far,” Carla said. “The part I enjoy about Special Olympics and this team is meeting friends.” Her coach for SOAR Orange Crush is Julie Smith.

SOAR Orange Crush is a mixed team of guys and girls – mixed in ages, too, from high school to late 20s and a little older. Carla said her friends at NCHS do not know she participates in Special Olympics. “They would think it was cool,” Carla said.

Carla has not only been playing basketball since joining SOAR, but also Softball and Volleyball, too.

“She’s playing and having fun,” Carla’s mom, Christina, said.

“Carla has a lot of athletic ability and I think she’s got a lot of room in which to grow as a basketball player,” Smith said. “She just needs some confidence to have those skills come out. It’s been fun to watch that evolve in her.”

“It’s been fun to try to draw her out and get her to shoot more and use the skills that she has,” Smith said. “She’s been one of the most improved people on the team this year.”

Smith explained Special Olympics helps its athletes “by helping them reflect on their abilities rather than their disabilities. It’s nice to have an opportunity where you can do your best and be your best, and have that what everybody sees rather than whatever disability you might have.”

These athletes on SOAR’s basketball teams practice, in the case of SOAR Orange Crush, in particular, once-a-week because a number of the players have jobs, most of them in the service industries. Also, when they do get together for practice, the players on these teams spend plenty of time on game fundamentals. Like any other team, doing that helps them stay sharp. So sharp that Carla and her teammates went 3-1 in the round-robin event.

They may get a few more games in before the season is over, with the goal to try to get to Special Olympics Illinois’ State Basketball Tournament, held at Illinois State University in mid-March. I got the feeling Carla would be happy to get there by the season’s end, too. Here’s hoping she and her teammates, and all of SOAR’s teams, continue having a successful remainder of the season.

Katie Seeman is in high school and plays basketball for the team called the Pink Panthers, representing Special Opportunities Available in Recreation, or SOAR, supported by Bloomington Parks and Recreation. The crowds at her games are encouraging, but small. With luck, her team will advance to the Special Olympics State Basketball Tournament in March.

One of the opposing teams the SOAR Pink Panthers faced at the Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout, part of The State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament, was Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation. C-USR players were a little taller and a little faster, but it didn’t seem to bother Katie and her teammates as they tried to work together to keep pace with their opponents.

At times in games, Katie, a junior at Stanford Olympia High School, appeared to be seemingly anticipating the opponents’ next move. That’s something any player should try to do. It was also another sign that Katie was heeding the lessons she learned in practice from her head coach, Julie Smith.

Katie said her friends at school know she plays basketball and are very encouraging to her. “I really like playing basketball because of being with my coaches and my teammates,” she explained. She said she is learning about getting more rebounds.

She said the best thing about being on the team for her is simple: “Just being able to be with my teammates,” she explained.

“Specifically, I think our players enjoy being able to play at a university,” Nicol offers. “They look up to athletes who play at universities, kind of as role models. For them to play here is very meaningful to them.”

The Pink Panthers were one of six teams SOAR brought to the Shootout. One of the other six teams, in addition to the Pink Panthers that had teens on their rosters in the round robin event was the SOAR Blue Bombers.

Jason Alsene, son of Ben and Tammy Alsene of Bloomington, is 17 and a junior at Bloomington High School. He is a member of SOAR Blue Bombers. He has been playing on SOAR teams for six years. Jason said he specifically likes rebounding and getting the ball out to the guards to help his team get points. He said his favorite player is IWU’s Jordan Zimmer.

Jason said he believes the Knisley event “has a tournament-type feel to it.” That, he said, is something he likes about it. In fact, IWU will host a Special Olympics District basketball event on Jan. 23, and the State Special Olympics Tournament March 16-18.

Each team played two games in the round robin format of the Knisley event.

“I think all of these kids have a huge amount of pride in the fact that they are on a Special Olympics basketball team,” Tammy Alsene said. “We tell people Jason plays for SOAR and that’s important. The kids feel really great about it and people are really supportive of Special Olympics.”

When he died in the fall of 2005, Ron Knisley served as Director of Sports and Competition at Special Olympics Illinois, headquartered in Normal. He also was a 10-year member of the committee that helped put together the Bloomington-Normal State Farm Holiday Tournament, held right after the Christmas holiday.

As the planning for the tournament grew, Knisley gave his fellow committee members something to consider: A tournament within the tournament, consisting of Special Olympics basketball teams. It was embraced whole-heartily Knisley’s fellow committee members.

It also was received and accepted by people in the stands at halftime of the Holiday Classic’s championship games, which is when the Special Olympics athletes take to the court for halftime and show the public how they, too, have roundball skills. That first Special Olympics tourney-in-a-tourney took place in 2002.

After Knisley’s death, the committee that organizes the Holiday Tournament voted to rename the Special Olympics event “The Ron Knisley Memorial Special Olympics Shootout,” explained Dave Oloffson, vice president of the Holiday Tournament. The Knisley event celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2011.

“Ron would be very proud to see what this Shootout has grown to,” Oloffson said, having started with just six teams to doubling it field. But, Oloffson added that his friend would be uneasy with his name being part of its moniker. “Putting his name on it, though, he wouldn’t want the fuss or the attention in that way.

“He loved making sure he was in the background and the attention was put on the athletes,” Oloffson said. “He’d be very proud of where the event is now.”

“I think it means a lot to these athletes to come out and participate in this event,” explained Diana Nicol, program manager for SOAR. “They enjoy being able to play in a nice facility such as Wesleyan’s Shirk Center. They look forward to it every year.”

SOAR’s halftime exhibition was one of three during the four Holiday Tournament’s championship games. Two Special Olympics teams performed an exhibition to give the crowd a sampling of how well these athletes can do the job. What’s interesting is – even to folks who have been to this event every year – no one in the stands leaves during this halftime demonstration. The fans root and cheer for these teams just as they do for any other team. That’s something to ponder and be proud of.

SOAR’s Pink Panthers were on Shirk’s main court at halftime of the main tournament’s Girls’ Class 1A-2A Championship game between Bloomington Central Catholic and El Paso Gridley, assuring there would be plenty of local fas in the stands who had some familiarity with SOAR and the programs it provides for people with intellectual disabilities.

SOAR won the exhibition handily to the cheering crowd approval.

For the games that SOAR played at the beginning of the day, there were about 30-40 spectators at each game cheering and applauding the action. Unfortunately for SOAR’s teams, the tournament provided a study in accepting defeat, as Seeman and the Pink Panthers lost two games to C-USR Lady Mustangs, 52-8 and 52-14. Alsene and SOAR’s Blue Bombers dropped a pair of games, first losing to Danville-based Eastern Illinois Special Olympics, 58-14, then losing to a Special Olympics team from Bradley-Bourbonnais High School, 58-33.

It all sounds very routine, doesn’t it? It sounds…well, normal. That’s one of the goals, spoken or not, of Special Olympics: To show those with the disabilities that they are capable of demonstrating skills in sports, first, and therefore, are capable of learning skills that can help them to be productive members of society.

Nicol said athletes who participate in Special Olympics don’t just demonstrate skills, but also personal growth, thanks, in part, to being in the program. “They’re maturing,” Nicol said. “Their skills certainly improve throughout the years.”

I would like you to consider attending either the district or state basketball events when they are in town this basketball season. You won’t just find them entertaining. You will find yourself witness to a rewarding and inspiring experience.

On another subject, Central Illinois has a new minor league sports team: The Central Illinois Drive, members of the Premier Basketball League. The Drive had a Fan Fest event prior to their lone home exhibition game on Dec. 31, and I met a couple of young guys there who have their own hoop dreams. I will tell you more about them next week. The Drive plays one more exhibition game on the road against St. Louis on Sunday before their first home game at U. S. Cellular Coliseum against St. Louis on Thursday, Jan. 12, starting with a 7p.m. tipoff.