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?'
The Richmond West Breakfast Lions Club (based in western Henrico) recently donated 59 backpacks to the Westover Hills Elementary School on Jahnke Road.
Above, club members display some of the backpacks prior to their distribution. > Read more.
Thanks to a first-place win in The American Protege International Vocal Competition 2014, Glen Allen High School student Matija Tomas will travel to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall in December.
At the first-place winners recital in Weill Hall, Matija will perform Giacomo Puccini’s opera aria, “Chi il bel sogna di doretta.” She will perform with other vocalists from around the world and have the opportunity to win other awards and scholarships.
Locally, Thomas has performed with Richmond’s renowned Glorious Christmas Nights, Christian Youth Theatre, and WEAG’s Urban Gospel Youth Choir. > Read more.
The John Rolfe YMCA and Gayton Baptist Church have partnered in an effort to bring greater health and wellness opportunities to the community.
Through this partnership, the John Rolfe Y will run Youth Winter Sports programs, including basketball and indoor soccer, in Gayton’s newly renovated $5.5 million outreach center that features a new gymnasium, youth and teen space, social space with café, meeting space and full service commercial kitchen. > Read more.
For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.
Urban Tavern’s big, bold themes impress
The Urban Tavern opened in August, replacing the former Shackelford’s space at 10498 Ridgefield Parkway in Short Pump. Because of local and longtime devotion to Shackleford’s, Urban Tavern has some big shoes to fill.
Without any background information, I headed to the restaurant for dinner on a Wednesday night, two months after its opening.
On a perfect fall evening, four out of eight outdoor tables were taken, giving the impression that the restaurant was busier than it was. On the inside, a couple tables were taken, and a few folks were seated at the bar. > Read more.
‘Alexander’ provides uncomplicated family fun
It’s not surprising in the least that Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day doesn’t much resemble the book it’s based upon.
Judith Viorst’s 1972 picture book isn’t exactly overflowing with movie-worthy material. Boy has bad day. Boy is informed that everyone has bad days sometimes. Then, the back cover.
In the film, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad-ness is blown up to more extreme size. Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) has a bum day every day, while the rest of his family (Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey) exist in a constant bubble of perfection and cheery optimism – to the point that the family is so wrapped up in their own success that Alexander’s being ignored.
So on the eve of his 12th birthday, Alexander makes a wish: just once, he’d like his family to see things from his perspective; to experience the crushing disappointment of one of those no good, very bad days. Once he has blown out the candle on his pre-birthday ice cream sundae, his family’s fate is sealed: one full day of crippling disasters for all of them. > Read more.
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CalendarTNT Entertainment will present Youth Impact 2014 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at U-Turn Sports Performance Academy, 2101 Maywill St. This youth and young adult conference is for ages… Full text