Shenandoah County Special Olympic team excited for basketball tourney

Jamie Schoenberger

The Shenandoah County Special Olympics program continues to grow and tonight it will be on full display.

The organization will hold a unified basketball tournament at 5 p.m. today at Central High School. There will be two unified teams from Shenandoah County, and two from Winchester.

It is the third year in a row that they have held the basketball tournament at Central.

Jamie Schoenberger, a special education teacher at Ashby Lee Elementary School, said the event and teams continue to grow.

“It’s gotten bigger every year,” Schoenberger said. “We’ve gotten more people involved. This is the first year we’ve gotten sponsors. We’re having giveaways. We’re definitely having more community involvement, which is really great. We like seeing that.”

Central High School special education teacher Megan Smith said that there are 22 players from Shenandoah County, and they are expecting 16 from Winchester. She said that they will divide into teams and decide how long they will play once everyone arrives tonight. Players from Central’s boys basketball team and Eastern Mennonite University’s men’s basketball team will be placed among the four teams.

In 2014-15, the Virginia High School League adopted Champions Together, a Special Olympics program that was formed to promote the unification of high school students with and without disabilities in interscholastic sports.

Central and Handley each had Champions Together teams. However in 2016 many of the Shenandoah County Special Education students aged out of the Champions Together program. Smith and her husband, Hayes, established the Shenandoah County Special Olympics program in 2016, which is for everyone 8 years and older. Both students and adults who have finished high school can participate in Special Olympics.

One of the members of Shenandoah County’s Special Olympic team is Joseph Connor. The Central graduate said he’s played in the game the last two years.

“I’m very excited,” Connor said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The team has been practicing for weeks, being coached by former junior varsity girls basketball coach Caline Rexrode. Smith and Schoenberger have also been helping coach the teams.

EMU’s men’s basketball team will provide the halftime show, expected to be about 20 minutes.

There will be plenty of local students helping with the event. Stonewall Jackson’s Interact Club, Central’s girls basketball team and Central’s Sports Medicine class will help referee, keep score, run the clock and serve in any capacity that is needed.

The Shenandoah County Special Olympics team recently competed in a regional tournament in Charlottesville. Schoenberger said that they had three different teams compete in the event. She said that they had a 5 vs. 5 team, a 3 vs. 3 team, and a skills team.

“Basketball’s a lot easier to adapt with Special Olympics and kids with disabilities,” she said. “That’s the sport that we have the most participation in.”

Schoenberger, who also is the secretary for the Area 4 Special Olympics Council, said that the 3 vs. 3 team finished third in the regionals.

The Special Olympics team also participates in track and field and soccer. Schoenberger said this was the first year they have had a soccer team.

“They did really well,” Schoenberger said. “They went to the state event in Virginia Beach. So that was the first time they had done that. It was really good.”

The basketball team usually practices on Saturdays, but they did something different this past weekend. The team ran in the Fallen Generals 5K (3 miles) run/walk race held at Stonewall Jackson High School.

Part of the money raised for the event was donated to the Shenandoah County Special Olympics program.

“Because they are donating some of the money, we decided we wanted to come out and show our support and thankfulness for them choosing us to donate to,” Schoenberger said.

As the program continues to grow, Schoenberger said the biggest thing she hopes people who come out to the tournament tonight is to see the joy on the athletes’ faces.

“I want them to just come out and see the athletes,” Schoenberger said. “They enjoy it so much, to see the happiness that they have about basketball. I would love for there to be more and more athletes from all the schools. And just more community members coming out, either volunteering or to coach or volunteers just cheering the kids on.”

The unified basketball tournament is a major fundraiser for the Shenandoah County Special Olympics program. Tonight’s event is free, but donations that will benefit Shenandoah County Special Olympics will be accepted at the door.

David Fletcher, a post-graduate on the Special Olympics team, said he’s ready to play tonight.

“I’m excited for the basketball game,” he said.