As any coach in any sport will tell you, if you want to win you have to practice, which is exactly what was going on Saturday morning at the First Baptist Church in Maryville.
About 15 Special Olympians have spent the past couple of weeks getting ready for this weekend's Northwest Area Basketball Tournament, which will bring more than 250 athletes to Bearcat Arena for a day competition, fellowship, high-fives and hugs.
Saturday's practice consisted of a five-on-five, full-court game pitting the Maryville Bearcats, a group of mostly older players from various parts of the county, against the Hounds, whose members are students at Maryville High School.
Both teams include several "unified partners," Special Olympics volunteers who assume limited roles on the court in order to assist athletes and smooth the flow of play.
The Hounds were formed last year after Special Olympics volunteer Diane Francis began working with special education teacher Laureen Graves to create more competitive sports opportunities for young people coping with a variety of cognitive disabilities ranging from autism to Down syndrome.
Incorporating MHS students into Special Olympics has meant growth for the program, which currently serves about 75 athletes countywide. Participants compete in a growing list of sports that, in addition to basketball, includes track, bowling and flag football.
Plans are in the works to expand the roster of activities to include golf, weightlifting and perhaps baseball.
More athletes, of course, has increased the demand for volunteers, and County Coordinator Bev Gardner, Clearmont, said Saturday that there is an acute need for coaches and assistants willing to work with athletes and help organize practices and events.
Gardner, who also serves as a bowling coach, said that while some people may feel hesitant or unsure about their ability to work with people who have disabilities, the payoff for both athletes and volunteers can be deeply satisfying.
"I just have a love for these guys," she said. "They are dear friends. Being with these people is a lesson in life. Their passion and their drive, it's 100 percent. It's pure and from the heart."
Francis, who lives in Maryville with her husband, radiologist Dr. Roger Francis, said she became involved with Special Olympics after the couple's son, Tony, was diagnosed with autism.
She said that Tony, who once had trouble tolerating the noise and excitement associated with playing basketball, has demonstrated marked improvement through participating regularly as a competitor.
"The socialization aspect of it is huge," Francis said. "There is a oneness and a connection with people. These are the same reasons that other young people participate in athletics. We're all human, and we all have the same need to be with others."
Saturday's area tournament will begin at 8:30 a.m. with an opening ceremony that is to include the traditional torch run and a performance by the Maryville Bearcats Special Olympics cheer squad.
Page 2 of 2 - This is the second year Northwest Missouri State University has hosted the event, but unlike 2011, the tournament is taking place while college students are still out on winter break. Gardner said the timing has led to a shortage of volunteers, which means local residents are still needed to help out.
Anyone interested in assisting should call Northwest Area Director Melody Prawitz or Assistant Director Katie Hrenchir at (816) 233-6232. Email Prawitz and Hrenchir at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.