It looked and sounded every bit like a typical small-town high school pep rally.
Several hundred happy, noisy teenagers crowded onto the MHS gymnasium bleachers; the band played a fight song; lithe, smiling cheerleaders waved their pom-poms and revved up the crowd as a half-dozen athletes wearing Spoofhound green warm-up suits trotted onto the hardwood floor.
But this was not an ordinary pre-game ode to school spirit. And the young basketball players who stood facing their cheering classmates were not ordinary kids.
They were the Maryville High School Hounds, a school- and community-sponsored team that, along with the Maryville Bearcats, a similar squad for older players, competed in Saturday's Special Olympics Northwest Area Tournament in Bearcat Arena.
Though the MHS Hounds have been around for a couple of years, this was the first time the school had organized a pep rally to spur them on to victory in the annual tournament, which attracts more than 250 athletes with cognitive disabilities from across the region.
MHS guidance counselor Ashlee James was apparently the first person to suggest organizing a rally like those commonly held for members of the school's Spoofhounds athletic teams, but the event quickly took on a life of its own.
The local Knights of Columbus chapter bought the warm-up suits, and an anonymous donor provided money used to purchase new matching black duffel bags for each of the players. A local physician provided the required physicals free of charge.
A couple dozen community members have been helping coach and run practices, and several Maryville High School student groups got involved as well.
Members of the Student Council, National Honor Society and girls basketball team all gave up their Saturday to serve as volunteers during the tournament, as did the MHS Cheerleaders and Dazzlers, who helped cheer the Maryville teams on in Bearcat Arena. The art class made posters for fans to wave from the stands.
Several of the Hounds were visibly moved by the rally. After all, in American high schools such adulation is usually reserved for the "cool kids," the strong, the beautiful – the gifted, shining young whose lives we like to think are filled with the promise of success and achievement.
On the surface, anyway, students who take part in Special Olympics basketball, and other sports offered by the program, are not those kids. They are not among the quick and clean-limbed and graceful. Most live every day fighting long, lonely odds in a world where simple tasks pose big challenges.
All they have is courage and heart and the will to play the game, whether basketball or life, as best they can.
And on Friday, their classmates saluted that courage with openness, joy, enthusiasm and acceptance. They did themselves proud.
Page 2 of 2 - "We wanted this to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said special education teacher Laureen Graves, who serves as the high school's coordinator for Special Olympics activities. "We wanted these students to feel that they are really part of the school and have the whole school behind them.
"It was a matter of everybody having ideas and just pulling it together.
Maryville High School is a great community for that."
One of the Hounds players spoke for all while being interviewed by reporters following the rally.
First, Nate Sims announced that he was dedicating his tournament play to a family friend who died in December. Then he looked unblinking into the television camera and said, "I think it's pretty good – having a lot of people cheer for the Spoofhounds."