As top college basketball teams battled in March Madness matchups throughout the day Saturday, a tournament featuring 30 coed teams from Chicago-area alternative schools focused more on sportsmanship than the final score.
The 35th annual Chicago Area Alternative Education League State Basketball Tournament will have winners in four divisions by Sunday, but the competition truly is about which teams and players show the best attitude, teamwork and respect for opponents, said Sarah Lorenzi, chairwoman of the league's fundraising committee.
"Sportsmanship is what we're all about," Lorenzi said Saturday as some of the first games were tipping off at Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights, which houses alternative schools for Northwest Suburban High School District 214. "The biggest trophy is the sportsmanship award."
Teaching students sportsmanship is important to the league because it serves 50 alternative schools across the area -- schools that teach troubled students who are expelled from traditional public schools or students with emotional or behavioral challenges that require additional attention.
CAAEL, as the league is known, is not an after-school program, but an aspect of the normal school day at its participating locations. Each school develops a behavior modification system that allows students to participate in basketball, volleyball, softball, soccer, chess, an art fair or other CAAEL programs only if they get good grades, show up for class and stay out of trouble -- both in school and with the law.
Basketball games throughout the season leading up to this weekend's tournament have been at the end of the week, serving as a motivator for students, coaches said Saturday.
"That Friday game is their reward," Lorenzi said. "It keeps the kids on task and coming to school and motivated."
Participating in CAAEL basketball gives players a chance to come together as a team and help each other try to win, said Kirill Nevedomskiy, an 18-year-old on the Forest View team, which lost its first game 26-24 to a team from Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211's Academy North.
"We just showed the effort," Nevedomskiy said. "We tried the best we can."
Before each tipoff, referees like John Brooks explain the etiquette and clean competition they will enforce during the game.
"We let them know what sportsmanship is all about before the game starts," Brooks said. "Keep your pants up, your shoes tied, your shirt tucked in -- that's all sportsmanship."
And after the final buzzer sounds, each team votes on two members of the opposing team to recognize with simple, blue sportsmanship ribbons. Players then huddle up, shake hands and exchange the ribbons.
"It's an awesome weekend," said Ryan Green, a coach of the Sonics from School of Expressive Arts and Learning South, a therapeutic day school in Romeoville. "It's all about sportsmanship; it's all about fun ... fair play and good competition."