ST. CHARLES – St. Charles East Illinois Special Olympics basketball players departed for this weekend’s state meet in Bloomington-Normal without a season tagline.
Hang around the ISO Saints at practices, games – even the school halls – and an appropriate catchphrase shoots to mind:
“Spread the energy.”
A group making its first trip to the state’s Special Olympics team basketball competition after winning last month’s Area 2 tournament doesn’t lack for good vibes.
“It makes it extremely easy on our end,” Saints head coach Donna Wisely said. “It makes you want to be there and be part of it. ‘Why are they excited?’ and how to help maintain that motivation. It’s awesome.”
The program has kept climbing since East Special Olympics coordinator Andrea Winiarski – also an assistant coach with Jamie Veyette – started it in 2002. Fourteen players participate on the basketball team, and about 20 are in a year-long athletics group that also competes in track, aquatics and bowling.
In the early 2000s, Winiarski said, District 303 did not operate classes for cognitively impaired students, which instead were led by the Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative and housed in district facilities.
Winiarski, active in special education since she attended Stagg, has since watched everything grow: Population, interest, support.
The ISO Saints weren’t even the ISO Saints until a few years ago, having only enough students to enter the state’s individual basketball competition – something akin to an obstacle course of dribbling, passing and shooting.
“Pure joy the whole time,” Winiarski said. “They get down if they lose, you know, if they don’t make a shot that they want, but they’re always supporting each other and always keeping them up and they’re enthusiastic. They’re telling each other they did a good job, or, ‘You’ll get it next time.’ ”
They’re hearing those words during occasional practices with East’s girls and boys basketball teams, too, along with a core group of peer partners who volunteer time.
East is set to play the Lindblom Eagles at 4 p.m. today at Illinois State’s Horton Fieldhouse in Normal. Tournament games also are taking place at Illinois Wesleyan in adjacent Bloomington. Today’s result determines the team’s Saturday medal round track at Horton.
Should the ISO Saints keep winning – their tournament resume already includes a January victory against the East boys – possible national and world competition would await.
The energy might really extend itself then.
• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.