The Special Olympics Basketball team, peer partners and coaches pose for a team photo after a successful season. (Photo courtesy of Steven Westendorf)
The Special Olympics Basketball team, peer partners and coaches pose for a team photo after a successful season. (Photo courtesy of Steven Westendorf)

York Special Olympics Basketball wraps up a successful season at State

March 25, 2022

York Special Olympics Basketball placed fourth in the Illinois state competition on March 11, marking an end to their most successful season yet.

The York Special Olympics program exists to provide athletic opportunities for students with disabilities who may not have been able to qualify for other sports. The group competes against other Special Olympics teams from various schools in an effort to create a fun and productive environment for student growth. 

“Technically, we’re not an I.H.S.A. sport, we compete under the Special Olympics Illinois rules and regulations,” head coach Steven Westerndorf said. “Our athletes are all York students, and we play different teams in the West Suburban Conference. The program is just a way for our athletes to get involved in York athletics, while also having a social aspect, where peer partners come and support our athletes as peer coaches.“

These “peer coaches” are other students who choose to volunteer for the program through the school. They work to help team members develop their basketball and social skills. 

“It’s just fun to be able to work with the kids and be able to see how each kid is able to play differently,” senior Aidan Wicklow said. “It’s heartwarming just seeing when they make a basket and everyone cheers.”

A large focus for the Special Olympics Basketball program is encouraging students to become more independent by developing their social skills in a competitive environment, while also alleviating parent stress through comprehensive infrastructure. 

“Everything the organization provides, like the transportation, really just helped to take the pressure off of us as parents,” Chris Higgins, father of player Emma Higgins, said. “They also helped Emma work on things like socializing and making new friends; I know she really enjoys it.”

The group had several games and practices in the months leading up to the state series where they could hone their skills and develop team synergy. 

“In a typical schedule we start in late October and practice for a while,” Westendorf said. “There are about eight to twelve games in a normal season until around mid-January when we have a district tournament, which we won this year. We are region C and we won division four, so we qualified for the state tournament, which was in the middle of March.”

The state tournament, which took place at The Shirks Center in Bloomington on March 11, was an exciting experience for many of the athletes involved, as well as their families. This was the first time Special Olympics Basketball had gotten to attend state, although they had qualified during the height of the pandemic.

“It was really a big turnout and really loud,” senior Brianna DiCianni said. “We actually qualified a couple years ago but everything got shut down due to COVID-19, so this was our last chance, and we got to play which was awesome.”

The Special Olympics Basketball program will continue to operate in future years with the goal of assisting students with special needs and their families.

“It’s also very cool to see how the athletes themselves have an impact on the York community,” Coach Tim Wealton said. “It provides our students a sense of dignity they maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

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