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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."

As a way to get in extra practice before games, the Special Olympics team had the chance to scrimmage against Willowbrook's boys basketball team and the Student Council. Before the team left for state, the school hosted a send-off for the athletes.

Dozens of students attended the event, where the marching band's drumline played for the audience and each member of the Special Olympics team was introduced.

"I think the culture here is accepting and celebrating any success," Murphy said. "It was awesome."

Like her coach, 17-year-old Laura Mayen of Villa Park was shocked and overwhelmed by the school's support for the team.

"It was awesome," she said. "I wanted to cry, but I was holding in my tears."

Throughout her years of coaching, Murphy said she's watched the members of the team develop social skills, confidence and athletic ability. This year, there are several seniors graduating whom she's worked with since they were freshmen. She's sad to see them leave, but players, such as Ryan Murray, plan to stay busy with Special Olympics sports even after high school.

Murray, 19, attended a different high school, but was still eligible to play because he lives in Villa Park. This was his last year on the team, but he said he'll stay involved with Special Olympics basketball through the team with Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association.

On Monday night, the team gathered with their parents, friends and family members for an end-of-the-year banquet at the school. They watched a video of the year's highlights, celebrated the end of the season and received their school letters.

Sarfraz said he'll be back on the team next year. He likes having fun with his friends, staying active and representing his school.

"It feels amazing," he said. "It feels like an honor. It's an honor to me."

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