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South Whidbey Wind advances to state tournament
Winning a playoff tournament requires a special team.
The South Whidbey Wind was the perfect kind of special as it won the Special Olympics of Washington Northwest Region basketball tournament in Stanwood on Feb. 5. The win sent them to the state tournament as part of the upcoming Winter Games.
Wind coach Mike Etzell said the players were unaware they won the gold medals until the team name was announced. Part of his coaching strategy is telling the players to not worry about the score.
“I was so excited I got a gold medal,” said 15-year-old Wind player Lucas Etzell, Mike Etzell’s son.
South Whidbey’s Special Olympics team plays in the team skills division. This modified game requires five team members to form a box with one player in the middle at one end of the basketball court. Players who form the box win a point with each pass and a catch, and a made shot is two points. Points are accumulated during the tournament, and the team with the most points, not just head-to-head victories, wins.
“They love to compete and they want to do well, just like any other kid,” coach Etzell said. “Their, I would say, appreciation or enjoyment of accomplishments might be a little greater than your average bear.”
Lucas wore his gold medal to school and church, and wears it around the house from time to time. When it’s not around his neck, it hangs prominently above his headboard.
“It kind of puts it all in perspective with the pure joy of sport,” said David Bishop, father of Andrew Bishop, who is the Wind’s youngest player at 9.
Andrew wore his medal to school and at home, too. It rests atop his dresser, arranged similarly to his siblings’ awards on their dressers. Andrew and Lucas, both have Down syndrome and are best friends — which is the main draw for Andrew to play for the Wind.
“I like playing basketball with my friends,” Andrew said. “It’s cool and great.”
Prizes piled up for the winners.
In addition to gold medals, the players also received team jerseys they’ll wear at the state tournament.
It’s the first time the Wind has had team uniforms. The blue tie-dye shirts feature the Special Olympics logo on the front, numbers and the team name on the back. Players also received blue shorts to coordinate with the blue shirts, sans the tie-dye.
In the ecstasy of victory, coach Etzell and the parents made sure the Wind players didn’t get over-confident. They continued their practice schedule of once a week on Saturdays at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.
“They’re all pretty motivated,” coach Etzell said.
Routine is important, and one routine the team, coaches, parents and volunteers maintain is the athletes versus everybody else game during the final 10 minutes of practice before ending with a team cheer.
It’s been a three-year journey for coach Etzell. He saw the team double in players and improve during his time as the coach.
“Last year, it was a good day if the kids got the ball to the rim,” he said.
After Thanksgiving, the winter sports season (which includes basketball) started for Special Olympics of Washington. Now, the season’s end is near with the Winter Games in Wenatchee, from opening ceremonies on March 4 to closing ceremonies on March 6. More than 2,500 players, parents, coaches, volunteers and spectators are expected to attend the Winter Games. It makes for a lively crowd, Etzell said, where players feed off the crowd’s energy when passes are caught and shots are made.
The Wind plays on Saturday in the team skills competition.
Mark Welch likes playing on the team.
“It’s fun,” he said.
He said he wasn’t nervous about the upcoming competition. “I’m not, because I watch basketball at home on TV.”
“I’m a competitor,” he added.
Leo Black agreed.
“I’m kind of ready to go,” he said, adding that his team was anxious to play in Wenatchee.
Playing with friends is a major draw for another Wind player. Erin Imes joined the team after Leo told her about it.
“He was like, ‘You should try this out,’” she recalled.
It’s been a great experience so far, she said.
“I like being in front of a whole bunch of people playing,” Imes said.
Wind teammate Dylan Matros-Borkowski said he was hoping to win a medal in Wenatchee. He enjoys shooting hoops, “but missing is hard,” he said.
“We’re going to do our best,” he added.
Claiming a state championship would be nice, Lucas said. But he’s more excited for the dance on Saturday night.
Andrew also said that he looked forward to the dance. His dad said that Andrew has been dancing to the Justin Bieber song and video for “Baby.” He planned to bring out the “robot” and breakdance.
But his big dance plans inspired some extra advice from the coach.
“In all that excitement, you have to go to sleep so you can do your best on Saturday,” coach Etzell said.