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School pride fills athletes at ‘Arc Madness’ basketball tourney

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 1, 2013, at 10:45 p.m.

With a big pink flower in her hair and chunky pink snow boots on her feet, Samantha Magill didn’t look like your typical point guard.

But the Arc of Sedgwick County’s “Arc Madness” isn’t your typical basketball tournament.

Samantha and other high school students with special needs from Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey counties participated Friday in the half-day tournament, which featured 12 school-based special education basketball and cheerleading teams.

“It gives the students an opportunity to represent their schools, and that’s one of the things you don’t get at Special Olympics,” said Kevin Fish, executive director of the Arc of Sedgwick County.

“They want to represent their school. They love to compete, they love to play, and the interaction is just fantastic.”

For the second annual tournament, students were divided into divisions based on overall skill level, representing teams from various comprehensive high schools as well as Levy Special Education Center and the Chisholm Life Skills Center in Wichita.

Some participants have autism, Down syndrome or other developmental delays. Others with physical disabilities rolled up and down the court in motorized wheelchairs or cheered from the sidelines.

Tony Miller, a West High student wearing a No. 7 jersey and an old-school, Paul Pierce-style headband, celebrated West’s 51-23 win over Andover High School by high-fiving teammates, opponents, parents and the referee.

“Man, it felt good to win,” he said after the game. “I got one three-pointer.”

Will Hodges, the game’s high scorer with 18 points, said the secret to winning is pretty simple: “Play defense, pass the ball, get the rebound – that kind of stuff.”

“Yup,” Tony chimed in. “Practice hard. Work hard. Yup.”

“And eat hard,” added Yichiel Avraham, heading for the lunch table.

“Eat hard? Naw, naw,” said Tony, smiling and shaking his head. “But yeah, let’s eat!”

Racheal Longie, a West High freshman, is part of the Circle of Friends mentoring program that matches regular-education students with special-needs students. She attended Friday’s tournament to cheer on Samantha and other buddies.

“I like that I get to help people, and it’s just really fun,” she said.

Hillary Zwetzig, coordinator of the Circle of Friends program, said events such as Friday’s tri-county tournament raise awareness, but the program’s real victories and highlights happen when students relate one-on-one.

“They create a relationship, a true friendship, a real buddy situation,” she said.

“The biggest thing that comes out of that is the change that happens with our regular-ed students. They develop such leadership skills and such a feeling of acceptance. I’ve seen many kids that have gone on to college and gone into special education or started programs” at college campuses, Zwetzig said.

Lauren Rouleau, 18, wore a Derby High School cheerleading uniform Friday and won first place with her teammates in the cheer competition. The team performed a dance routine to “Dynamite” that ended with a pyramid with the Panther mascot posed alongside.

“I love it,” Lauren’s mother, Lisa, said of the event and the Circle of Friends program.

“I’ve never seen it anywhere else. To see so many of the regular-ed kids get involved with the special-ed kids, it makes you cry,” she said. “It’s very student-focused and student-led, and that’s the coolest thing.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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