Shooting stars


March madness was in full effect at Hermitage High School March 3. Panthers students and basketball fans, crammed together in the school's noisy gymnasium, rose to their feet with less than a minute remaining in a game against rival Freeman High.

With Hermitage clinging to a one-point lead, a Freeman player gathered a loose rebound and streaked the length of the court for a lay-up to put the Rebels back in front by one with less than 20 seconds remaining.

As the Panthers worked for a final shot, the crowd counted down each remaining second in unison.

"Seven. . . six. . . "

An attempted jump-shot fell unsuccessfully to the ground.

"Five. . . four. . . three. . . "

A Hermitage player rose the rebound, collected the ball and launched it toward the basket.

It fell safely through the net as time expired, giving the home team a thrilling 32-31 victory and prompting momentary delirium in the gymnasium, as students jumped up and down, some hugging each other and dancing in place, others storming the court to celebrate with the team.

That a high school basketball game might evoke such interest, passion and excitement among a school's student body is not remarkable; scenes like this one play themselves out across the nation thousands of times a year.

But that this game – played between two teams of exceptional education students as part of Henrico County's All-Star Basketball League – did so was, perhaps, an eye-opening reminder of the power of athletics, teamwork and inclusion.

'I made a basket'
David Kern admits that it can be difficult to keep the attention of his Deep Run High School students early in the week.

"On Monday and Tuesday," said Kern, who teaches students with disabilities, "it's hard to get anything done."

That's because his students know it's almost game time, and they're anxious to get on the court.

Kern and two fellow exceptional education teachers in Henrico (Freeman's Lourie Sledd and Tucker's Sallie Johnston) spearheaded the creation of the All-Star Basketball League four years ago as a way to provide an encouraging, fun outlet for their students, who suffer from mental or physical disabilities, and disabled students at other county high schools.

Henrico County had previously participated in the similar Medford League with other high schools in the region, but the trio believed their students would benefit from a less competitive league that placed more emphasis on participation than winning.

"We wanted it to be more child focused, where they get the feeling of, 'Wow, I made a basket,'" Sledd recalled. "We talked about it being just the spirit of. . . having fun, being with peers, being part of a group where they could compete in a sport in high school."

Participating Henrico schools include Deep Run, Freeman, Henrico, Hermitage, Highland Springs, Tucker and Varina; Hanover's Lee-Davis and Hanover High also are members of the league. Games are played weekly during the morning, and teachers often bring their classes to the gym to watch and cheer on their classmates.

Most teams wear the same basketball jerseys their school's boys' and girls' teams wear.

"For them to go to those schools where they see their peers playing sports, it's just huge," Sledd said of her students. "That's like the coolest thing ever."

Teams often give each player a nickname, and all players are introduced by name to the crowd before each game. Student and adult volunteers assist during games, serving as referees and helping players in wheelchairs or those with other physical ailments who need assistance getting up and down the court.

At Tucker High – described by Sledd and Kern as the model school for the league – students run the entire program. Home games are almost always packed with students cheering on both teams. Johnston admitted that she can't explain why mainstream students at Tucker embraced the program so quickly, but she's thrilled that they have.

"It brings out the best in all of them," she said.

Johnston enlisted the help of several varsity boys' basketball players four years ago to run drills with the All-Star team, and those players began bringing friends to assist. Now dozens of students are involved, serving as referees, coaches and on-court assistants.

"It's the most heartwarming thing I do in my work," Johnston said of her involvement with the league. "It's neat to see what students will do when you give them the chance."

'An honored group'
While the league has impacted the lives of students who play and those who assist with it, it's also had farther reaching impacts at the participating schools, according to those involved.

It "absolutely" has changed the way mainstream students interact with disabled students at Deep Run, Kern said.

"There's definitely more a sense of belonging," he said, describing how he has watched from afar as the two groups of students exchange hallway smiles and waves that are heartfelt.

"It's kind of cool to walk down the hall and not have a hand in interaction that's happening between our students and the general student population," Kern said. "It's genuine, natural interaction."

At Tucker, team members have experienced similar outcomes.

"It has certainly enlarged their social circles, and it's raised their confidence," Johnston said. "They're an honored group at Tucker."

Disabled students everywhere long to feel like they're part of something larger and that they fit into mainstream society with their peers, said Hermitage exceptional education teacher Karen Heldorfer, who oversees the Panthers' All-Star team.

"The recognition from their peers is what they crave," she said. "They want to feel like they're part of the school. It's something they look forward to, and it brings them a lot of joy. Our school embraces everyone – the stands are always filled with students there to support them."

The league has provided an opportunity for its players to grow on and off the court, as they learn to develop the type of skills they'll use after high school, too.

"A lot of these kids have played together for four years, they've learned teamwork, how to share the ball," Sledd said. "Some of them will get down to the basket and pass the ball, because they want their friend to get a basket. It's great to see how caring they are toward each other."

During play, students in wheelchairs sometimes shoot at a lower basket. It's not unusual for play to slow to allow for one student to attempt several shots in a row. Steals and blocks are not common, and scores are sometimes loosely kept so that the games are close throughout. Players develop self-confidence as they see what they're able to achieve on the court.

"My goal every year is, I want everybody on my team to make one shot," Kern said. "It means the world to them."

Said Sledd, "We've had kids who couldn’t cach a ball [initially], and in four years, they are running up and down the court. I've seen them grow and become athletes."

'When do we get to play?'
Following Hermitage's dramatic win earlier this month, players mobbed each other on the court, collapsing into a pile the way any team might in such a situation. Students were giddy with excitement, just as they would have been had their boys' or girls' basketball teams won in similar fashion.

Minutes later, when the celebration had died down and students had scattered toward their next classes, one Hermitage player emerged in the hallway outside the gym, a smile stuck wide on his face.

"We won," he said softly to no one in particular, as he peered back into the gym through the window on a door, seemingly wondering if the fantastic finish had been real. "We won!"

On that day, even for Freeman's players – some of whom were momentarily disappointed afterwards – the league was nothing but a winning experience, Sledd said.

"We've just seen the kids grow, from where they're really shy about it – afraid to get out there – to where they can't wait to get on the court," she said. "We've gotten a new student this week, and every day she's asking, 'When do we get to play basketball?'
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May 2017
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The 2016 film “Mother’s Day” (rated PG-13) will play at 7 p.m. May 5 and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 6 at the Henrico Theatre, 305 E. Nine Mile Rd. Tickets are $1 and can be purchased at the door. For details, call 328-4491. Full text

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