ST. CHARLES – Miniature fat heads of the St. Charles East Special Olympics basketball team glistened around in the ocean of black and orange in the stands. Supportive cheers from classmates rained down from above.
For the sixth annual St. Charles East Special Olympics basketball scrimmage vs. the "Varsity Scrubs" on Thursday night, arguably the lights felt brighter than usual for an event commonly dubbed "The Big Game".
No matter the ability of the player on the floor or color jersey one was wearing, one constant held firm: St. Charles East High School came together as one student body – Black and orange, through-and-through.
The Special Olympics team didn't disappoint, dominating its way to a 63-22 scrimmage victory over the joint girls and boys basketball programs.
Often, the special education program as a whole can be seen in the stands supporting their fellow students on a given Friday night for a football or basketball game. Fittingly, it was their turn to put on a show that is generally regarded as the highlight of the year for the school.
"It's special," East junior Nate Ortiz said. "Being able to present them with the ability to live their dream – and make it all about them – It's great."
Each ISO basket was met with wild cheers, while any opposing score got playfully booed.
ISO player Kenny Trottier just finished postgame pictures with his friend, senior Justin Hardy. The pair flashed three fingers in the air – A three pointer sign – commemorating Hardy's three point prowess. Hardy is Trottier's favorite varsity player, and the two are close friends.
This time, it was Trottier's turn to be one of several stars in front of his fellow students – A memorable moment for him.
"Seeing all of our friends coming to support us," Trottier said on what was the most special part of the night.
"[Trottier] talks about this game year-round," Hardy said. "We get more people to this game than any game [varsity has]. These kids are so happy and genuine when they're out on the floor...it's fun to see them having such a great time cause that's what it's all about."
A common favorite sentiment among the ISO players for the evening is playing and sharing the court with one another as a team, while also getting collective support from their classmates.
"It makes me feel overwhelmed and very emotional because its a great experience to have everybody come out and support me," ISO player Annie Erwin said.
Two months ago, the Special Olympics team was treated to a scrimmage at the United Center. Nine days later, the program's skills team won two gold medals and had two state qualifiers, Hunter Hoan and Mitchell Hahn, for the state tournament coming up in mid-March.
"This is the game that means the most to my players," East Special Olympics coach Jamie Veyette said. "This is the night they get to shine, [and] it's what they work for all season."
Note: D303 United, a Special Olympics basketball program comprised of middle and elementary school students, competed in the junior division for the ISO regional tournament in mid-January. The program earned silver medals, and is headed to the state tournament in March.