The basketball season in Elgin Area School District U-46 isn't quite overt.
In fact, one district team in particular is playing in the state tournament this weekend. The U-46 Blue Stars team, comprised of cognitively disabled student-athletes throughout the district, heads to the Bloomington-Normal area Friday to play in the Special Olympics Illinois Basketball Tournament.
The Blue Stars, who have qualified for the state tournament the last 2 years, bring an unbeaten 7-0 mark into their first contest Friday at 2:30 p.m. against the Princeton Tigers. Miner School and Cahokia play at 11:30 a.m. Friday. The winners play for the state title Saturday at 9:30 a.m. The losers play for third place Saturday at 8 a.m.
The Blue Stars qualified for the state finals after scoring a 60-57 win over Cove in the regional championship at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. The Blue Stars played in the top division at the regional.
"It was a close game," notes Maureen Lue, a certified school nurse in the district and the U-46 Special Olympics coordinator. "The kids we played were really good."
Blue Stars coach Mike LaPrairie says his team has been driven to get back to the state tournament since the start of the season.
"They want it," he says. "That has been their goal since we got there the first time. They enjoy going out and playing. It's a good group of kids that have been with us for quite some time."
Team play also has benefitted the Blue Stars this season. While South Elgin High School's Haywood Hughes and Central SWEP's Raheem Wade are two of the team's key players, their teammates have played just as big a role in the prosperity that permeates through the program.
"These guys play as a team," LaPrairie says. "They hang in there and they never give up. They always are there to pick each other up. We do have a couple of really good kids with Haywood and Raheem, but it helps us that they are good enough to get the other kids the ball where those kids can score baskets."
Sportsmanship also factors into the Blue Stars' overall success equation.
"Even when they are at a point where they are that much better than the other team, they are good enough to keep the other team in the game," LaPrairie states. "Their sportsmanship is terrific."
Lue previously coached in the district's Special Olympics program (track) and took the oversight of it when asked by a colleague who had to step down from the coordinator position.
"Being a nurse, I work with a lot of the disabled kids in the district," she says. "This group is very team-oriented. They take that to heart. We teach them not to worry about winning. It's about doing your best out there. It's about keeping strong. They got their butt kicked in a practice game earlier this year. They came back the next day and had a great practice."
LaPrairie says each year brings the same high-level of enthusiasm from the players. This is his 10th year coaching in the program.
"Each year when I come back the first time, they are so excited to see me," he notes. "It's almost like I am a rock star. They love to play. They keep coming back. A lot of these kids have been with us for 10 years. Their spirit runs pretty deep."
LaPrairie adds the caliber of play in the Special Olympics division the team plays in is top-notch. Both Hughes and Wade can dunk the basketball.
"We're scoring 50 and 60 points a game. It's back and forth," he says. "It's like a junior-level high school game. It's fun to watch."
Lue is thrilled to see the Blue Stars get back to the state finals.
"Special Olympics is kind of the hidden gem in the district," she says. "A lot of people don't even know we have a team."
In addition to Hughes and Wade, the Blue Stars' roster features Centerhouse student-athletes Max Berk, David Donley, Iaan Rivera, Jordan Stokes and Emily Zaideman, Elgin High's Eric Gomez, Central SWEP's David Gomez, Eugene James, and Clare Woods Academy's Eric Mescher and Ellen Moess. LaPrairie is assisted by Brian Tepper and Greg Zaideman.
"They are psyched beyond crazy," Lue says. "They are excited about how far they have come. They are so happy that they made the state tournament."
For more on Special Olympics in Illinois, visit www.soill.org.