It might have seemed like a simple scrimmage game, but for the Laguna Hills Hawks basketball team, it was an experience they won’t soon forget.
As members of the Orange County Region of the Special Olympics, the Hawks players were honored guests last month at JSerra Catholic High School as the school’s girls novice and varsity basketball teams took on Mater Dei High School in Trinity League action.
During halftime at each game, the Hawks split up their team and played a scrimmage game against each other in front of the home crowd, while members of the Lady Lions coached and cheered from the bench.
“It’s nice that they invited us here so we can show off the organization that we are,” said Hawks player, Joseph Gorin.
Joseph and his teammates took to the court to display their dribbling, passing and shooting skills, as JSerra’s boys basketball head coach, Zach Brogdon, called live play-by-play. Having played basketball with the Special Olympics since the sport was added locally in 2005, Joseph never misses a chance to play some hoops with his friends.
“I just love the sport,” said Joseph. “I love the action, and I love playing with my friends. I really love to compete.”
JSerra has been hosting the Hawks on their campus for this showcase game over the last six years with the goal of building a long-term relationship of service and support. As the players from both teams interact with each other, they share their love for basketball.
“We’re so grateful JSerra invited us back again this year,” said Ticky Gorin, Joseph’s mother and Local Program Coordinator for the Hawks. “It’s a great experience. They learn a lot from our kids and we learn a lot from them.”
The world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, the Special Olympics provides year-round sports training to nearly 5 million athletes around the world. Ticky has been working with the Special Olympics Orange County Region as one of their sports programs coordinators since 2003. Her original intent was to find a place for Joseph to play sports, but she soon found joy in working alongside the athletes and growing the organization’s sports program in south Orange County.
The Hawks are now 70 athletes strong and participate in eight sports throughout the year including not only basketball, but also sports such as floor hockey, softball, flag football and bowling. Their team plays in a number of tournaments in each sport season where they compete against other Special Olympics teams across Southern California. There are 32 athletes who play on the Hawks basketball team, and 13 of them were able to attend the event at JSerra.
“It makes them feel proud,” said Ticky. “A level of confidence builds for our athletes because of these experiences.”
Several of the Hawks athletes have been given the opportunity to have experiences beyond participating in their sports locally. When Los Angeles played host to the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, Joseph represented his team and his country as a Global Messenger.
Sara Thiel, a Special Olympics athlete who has also been in the Orange County Region’s program with the Hawks since 2003, was able to represent the United States in track and field for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Shanghai, China. Spending time with her basketball teammates on JSerra’s court for this annual event is something Thiel looks forward to each year.
“I like interacting with the other teams here,” said Thiel. “I really like playing against my teammates. It’s fun.”
And it’s fun for the JSerra Lady Lions as well. Varsity player and senior, Caroline Piedra, is in her fourth year of hosting the Hawks and enjoys celebrating all athletes who play basketball, no matter their abilities.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” says Piedra. “Every year they come back, and you kind of forget the excitement and the joy it can bring you and them. When we see them play, it’s such an honor. It makes both of the teams competing forget about the competition for a minute, and we can come together and support them.”
Grateful for the exposure, Ticky knows that in addition to the Hawks athletes having the chance at a unique experience, those watching in the stands can get a glimpse into what the Special Olympics is all about.
“It’s great to see the crowd cheering for our players,” said Ticky. And they get public recognition, too. I hope everyone can see the capacity of our athletes. They do have the ability to play.”