A weekend of hoops, sportsmanship, fun
BY CHARLOTTE RODINA / THE FREE LANCE–STAR
They're called the Mean Machine team, but it's hard to figure out why.
As buzzers and cheering take over the Stafford High School gymnasium during the Special Olympics basketball tournament on Saturday, a player on Mean Machine stopped mid-game to give a hand to a player who fell—a player on the opposing team.
This kind of sportsmanship is not unusual in the Special Olympics environment, which is why Kate Marciniak, fan and mom of a player, explained, "the team name is misleading."
Special Olympics Virginia gives children and adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to play a variety of sports, including basketball, bowling, swimming and golf, among others, in a competitive yet supportive climate.
"This is a great event because teams and athletes from all over the state come together as a community," said Rick Jeffrey, president of Special Olympics Virginia.
Parents convened after a semifinal game to gab about their kids and bond over the pride they have for them.
"Cohesiveness is the best way to describe the team," explained one supportive Mean Machine team mom, Missy Alsop. "Nobody is left out, and they actually want to share the ball."
The tournament was part of a two-day event that included more than 800 players and teams from different parts of Virginia, such as Charlottesville and Richmond. The games were held at high schools and middle schools in Stafford.
The national anthem, a flag presentation and other activities kicked off the opening ceremony on Friday, and the day ended with a community dance open to all the athletes. Then full-court, half-court and individual skills, or mini shooting and passing competitions, began.
Lakrisha Boxley, 21, was born with a learning disability to a 13-year-old mother. Shortly after, Pastor William Frye adopted her in order to bring her up in a safe and productive environment. That included basketball.
"In a normal community, she's withdrawn," said Frye, who looked over at his enthusiastically gesturing daughter on the court. When she's with her team, Boxley feels safe and opens up.
"All I like is basketball," Boxley said, eyes all alight. "It's better because I get to be around my friends."
The tournament is more than bouncing balls and keeping scores. Stafford High School was swarming with students who volunteered to hand out food, keep score, make announcements and see that their work and planning for the tournament was running smoothly.
Wes Bergazzi, assistant principal in charge of athletics at Stafford High School, said the Olympics are a way for special-needs members to grow and thrive, as well as a way to expand the understanding of mental deficiencies to the community, and that includes the high school students.
Students in Rachel Sherman's class are required to volunteer 70 hours of their time to events like the Special Olympics. However, they've figured out it's about more than just a grade.
"Once you meet people different from you, you're able to get new insights," said Aiyannah Terry, a junior at Stafford High School.
"[The volunteering] shows them what issues are out there and how to help," said Sherman.
Most importantly though, the Special Olympics reached its ultimate goal of producing smiles.
"The fans have been screaming and hollering in all the schools," said Jeffrey. "It's been a fun day."
Over 100 fans showed up to the games at Stafford High School, but there were over 1,000 total who supported the event, according to Jeffrey. Cheerleaders flipped and twirled in red, white and blue while family and friends in the stands screamed and cheered.
"Cheering on Matt is the best part," said Stephanie Whiteside, whose 16-year-old son, Matthew Whiteside, plays for the Edison Eagles of Alexandria. "He loves it, so we love it, too."