Special Olympics basketball tournament in Sutherlin a hit

February 3, 2019

STHERLIN — With just over seven minutes left in the game, Patrick Fitzgerald hit a deep shot to put the Roseburg Rebels unified Special Olympics basketball team up by nine points against the North Umpqua Steelhead.

Viewers in the stands clapped and Fitzgerald raised his arms in triumph before running hard to get back on defense.

Although the Rebels ended up winning that game, it’s not about winning and losing, said Frank Rambaum, Special Olympics Oregon volunteer program coordinator for Douglas County.

“It’s about getting out and being active, working on your abilities and having fun,” Rambaum said.

Thirteen teams competed in the 11th annual Youth Unified Special Olympics Basketball Tournament at Sutherlin High School and Middle School on Saturday. Teams made up of youth and adult players with and without disabilities played 17 games. The event also included a skills competition, a bingo fundraiser and an award ceremony. Teams were primarily from Douglas County, but the tournament also drew teams from Sisters and Elmira.

The tournament was a much-needed opportunity for Special Olympics Oregon teams, whose programs have largely stopped as the state organization tries to deal with $2.5 million in debt.

It was a notable year for the tournament, said Tracie McKnight, Special Olympics coach at Sutherlin.

McKnight has organized the tournament all 11 years. In the first year of the tournament, kids had to play on teams made up of mostly adults, she said. But schools in the area have increased participation enough in recent years that they are able to field their own teams.

“It’s just wonderful that kids are able to play with other kids,” McKnight said.

It was also a big year for the tournament because the event had more professional referees and volunteers than McKnight needed, she said. It’s been hard to get enough volunteers in the past.

“This year has definitely been the nicest,” McKnight said. “Volunteers really make this possible,” McKnight said.

“Seeing the teamwork and the camaraderie and the excitement that comes out of making a basket or a good pass, thats my favorite part,” she said.

Carie Knox, special ed teacher at Sutherlin High School, said her students were talking about the event all week.

“They make sure we’re all coming,” Knox said. One of her students on the court wanted her attention multiple times to show her his shot.

She said it’s also a great opportunity for the general ed students who play with her special ed students. Knox also coaches the JV girls basketball team.

“They learn things,” Knox said. “I learn things every day from my students.”

She said she’s glad her students have an opportunity to play, because “not everybody gets that.”

In June, newly hired Special Olympics Oregon CEO Britt Oase announced the organization was cancelling all of its fall and winter programs, citing financial problems.

Donations have allowed many programs such as the tournament to continue. But teams not affiliated with schools such as the Roseburg Rebels have seen a marked decrease in games this year, Rambaum said.

The tournament gives players such as Fitzgerald, who graduated from Sutherlin High School in 2018 and now plays for the Rebels, a chance to play.

Fitzgerald wouldn’t have been able to sink that deep 2-pointer if he wasn’t able to compete in events like the tournament in previous years, according to Rambaum. “He would not have been able to handle just that little bit of pressure,” he said.

After the game ended, it was clear how much effort Fitzgerald had put in.

“I’m tired,” he said still panting as he sipped Powerade. He said he has been playing on teams for 5 or 6 years.

“It’s fun. It’s really a good time,” Fitzgerald said.

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