February 22, 2012 - Lake Orion High School's gym rocked Feb. 14 with cheers, shouts and wild applause as both Dragon and Wildcat spectators alike rooted for their respective Special Olympics basketball teams.
Oxford’s Gregg Bette, 21, doesn’t crack under the pressure of taking on two Lake Orion defenders – Tom Strauss and Cory Little. Photos by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
Oxford’s Marty Micaels takes a shot. (click for larger version)
"To go there and have their entire student body actually be there to watch these two teams as if it was a high school varsity game made my athletes feel amazing," said Jeanne DiCicco, who coaches the Oxford team. "It was a very emotional day for me because it was everything that I've ever worked for – to have them put in that limelight."
Oxford ultimately won the game, beating the Dragons 35-29 after four, 8-minute periods. It was the first time these two teams have ever faced each other.
"I have some really good athletes this year and we've been practicing really hard," DiCicco said.
While it certainly feels good to win, DiCicco said for her players, the game was about so much more than the final score; it was about giving them the opportunity to finally have their day in the sun.
"It was a milestone for a lot of my students," she said. "They embraced their disabilities and felt like varsity athletes."
Her team has always appeared before much smaller crowds, so it was quite a shock for them to play in a high school gym that was literally packed to the rafters with screaming fans.
"It was overwhelming for them at first," DiCicco said. "They were freaked out."
"They just thought it was going to be a regular basketball game," she continued. "All of the sudden, the stands started to fill up and I could see the anxiety in their faces. But once the spectators started cheering for them, they felt like true athletes, playing a game they love. They truly shined."
What made it even more special was the fact that a busload of OHS students made the journey to Dragon country to cheer these athletes on. DiCicco thanked OHS Principal Todd Dunckley and Oxford Associate Superintendent Denise Sweat for making that happen.
Most of the players are part of the Oxford LOFT program, which stands for Learning Opportunities for Tomorrow and serves 18-to-26-year old students with developmental disabilities or cognitive impairment.
LOFT, which is housed at OHS, focuses on preparing young men and women for productive, fulfilling and independent adult lives by teaching them a variety of useful skills.
Playing a competitive sport helps give LOFT students a feeling of accomplishment and belonging that's unlike what they experience in the classroom or working at a job.
"It's a different type of feeling," DiCicco said.
DiCicco indicated that having LOFT students play basketball helps teach them how to work together as a team and "builds a sense of family."
"They're part of something," she explained. "This is theirs. They have ownership in it. That's exciting for them."
It also a positive experience for the players' loved ones.
"It's exciting for their families to see their children out there playing and excelling at something," DiCicco said.
But it's not just LOFT students who get to play on the team.
"Two students who graduated last year still play with us," DiCicco said. "There's no age limit. They can play Special Olympics until they're 80 if they want or older."
DiCicco's so passionate about Special Olympics that in addition to coaching Oxford's basketball team, she also coaches the community's soccer, bowling and track & field teams. Someone else coaches swimming, though she still oversees that sport as well.
She wished to thank all the people who help her as a coach including Kathy Stull, Louis Adams and Bruce Pierson.
DiCicco's basketball team will compete in the Special Olympics district playoffs the first weekend in March, and if all goes well, advance to the state finals March 23-24 in Rockford.
"I think we have a really good chance of winning states this year, as long as all of my athletes can be there and everybody's healthy," she said.
DiCicco's team is looking forward to a rematch against Lake Orion scheduled for March 5 at the OHS gym.
"The entire school will be here to watch this game, which to me, is awesome," she said. "We're bringing a little bit of energy to Oxford."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.