It'll be the first time kids from Volusia County have made it to the national stage.
For many of the athletes on Seabreeze High School’s unified basketball team, they’ve never been on an airplane. They’ve never stayed more than a night away from their families. They’ve never set foot on a college campus or played the game in front of a stacked crowd.
The majority of the players haven’t left the state of Florida.
But that all comes to an end on July 1, as the Sandcrabs are set to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games on July 1-6 in Seattle.
More than 4,000 Special Olympics athletes and coaches from all 50 states will be in attendance, while 16 athletes and coaches from Volusia County will represent Team Florida. It’ll be the first time kids from Volusia have made it to the national stage.
“I don’t know what to expect. There has been a lot of firsts for them through the years,” Sandcrabs coach Anthony McLoughlin said. “But I think it’s going to be an awesome experience for them.”
Seabreeze has been involved with the Special Olympics for the past four years. McLoughlin and assistant coach Vanessa Emerson, who are both special education teachers at the school, have been involved with the program since the beginning. While the Sandcrabs received an invitation to compete only in basketball, they also compete in flag football, tennis, bocce ball, cycling and track. Special Olympics track athlete Jasmine Taylor won her third and fourth state titles in the 4x400 and 4x100-meter relays at the 3A Unified State Meet on May 5.
The unified basketball team, which features 10 players (six athletes and four unified partners), received an invitation to apply to the USA Games after finishing second in the state tournament last season. The team had to go through a trial camp that tested endurance, individual skills and how well players got along with others.
For being a part of the USA Games, the team received Under Armour bags, two uniforms, two polos, pants, socks, a hat, rolling duffle bags and new basketball shoes courtesy of Finish Line.
The team will get to stay in the dorms at the University of Washington and will get to compete on the Huskies’ home court.
“I think for all of them, it’s about being a part of something bigger, being included in some- thing bigger,” said Emerson, who has taught at Seabreeze for the past eight years. “Because sometimes, they’re not always included in everything.”
Per the Special Olympics’ rules, three athletes and two unified partners have to be on the court at all times. So when athlete Jordan Wright is in the game, coaches make sure Seabreeze 10th-grader and unified partner Matthew Mundy is always on the court with him.
Mundy said Wright, who is deaf, used to have behavioral issues stemming from an inability to communicate with his teammates and coaches. It got to a point where the coaches were going to sit him out.
But over the past year, Wright’s attitude has improved — thanks in part to his close bond with Mundy.
The duo has gone as far as developing its own language on the court, despite Mundy not being fluent in American Sign Language. For example: When Mundy wants Wright to cut toward the basket, he’ll make a scissor motion with his fingers.
Win or lose, however, the USA Games will be about putting forth their best effort, McLoughlin said.
“We just hope that we go and have a great time,” he said. “It really is about having fun and giving your best effort. It’s not so much about winning and losing as it is the opportunity to go and compete. For so many of our kids, prior to being a part of this team, they never really had an avenue to participate, compete or even to shine and excel.
“Now, they’ve been given that chance.”