Willowbrook students come together, compete on Special Olympics basketball team
VILLA PARK — When Tara Murphy watches the members of the basketball team she coaches walk through the halls of Willowbrook High School, they're met with "hellos" and high-fives from their peers.
"They're kind of celebrities around here," she said. "That's partially because of basketball."
It's the kind of greeting that's typical for any student athletes who take home a second-place championship at the state tournament, and for the players of Willowbrook's Special Olympics basketball team, recognition is especially meaningful. This sport has given them the opportunity to represent their school in athletic competition.
"For some of them, it's not even about basketball, it's about the social aspect," said Murphy, an English teacher at the school. "For some of them, that's the joy of it — being part of a Willowbrook sport."
There are 14 members of the team and although they don't all attend Willowbrook for academic classes, they all live within District 88 boundaries and are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities.
This year's group is the largest team the school's ever had, and Murphy thinks it's probably because of last year's trip to state.
The players made their return to Illinois State University in March for their second state competition, bringing home second place.
"It was awesome," said 19-year-old Amhad Sarfraz of Villa Park, who just completed his first year on the team.
During the regular season, Murphy's team matches up against other Special Olympics teams from suburban high schools and special recreation organizations. At the beginning of each season, the coaches get together and figure out suitable match-ups.
It's challenging because there are so many levels of players, but Murphy said it's equally rewarding when they find a good pairing with another team.
Throughout the season, the Willowbrook community has been supportive of the team and encouraging to the athletes. There is a group of five peer coaches from the mainstream academic track at school Murphy recruited to help at practices, scrimmages and games.
"I think it benefits the peer coaches as much as the kids," she said. "It's nice to see that they're excited."
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