Students, parents and teachers filled the stands in Lodi High School’s gym on a rainy Thursday morning to watch two basketball games between special needs students from high schools throughout Lodi Unified School District.

Looking to promote camaraderie between the district’s special needs students and students without disabilities, Erin Aitken, Lodi High’s assistant principal, said she organized what she called the inaugural season for the league which consists of teams from Lodi, Tokay, Bear Creek and Ronald E. McNair high schools.

“It’s really important for us at the school sites to have a very inclusive culture, and I can’t think of anything better to bring people together than sports,” Aitken said.

After finishing their warm-up, student athletes from Lodi High and Bear Creek High lined up on the court as former Lodi High basketball coach Dave Nutting — who served as the announcer — introduced the players before the first game of the day began.

With substitute players switching in every few minutes to give everyone a chance to play, the teams matched one another shot for shot early in the first of two 20-minute periods before Lodi High gained a 30-18 lead over Bear Creek by halftime.

“We got us a really good game here,” Nutting said.

After a halftime show by the Lodi High drill team and cheerleaders, the players returned to the court for the second period as coaches and fans alike shouted words of encouragement.

Although Lodi High defeated Bear Creek 56-26, every player got a medal before the teams and players lined up to shake hands in a show of sportsmanship.

Jon Grim, an adaptive physical education specialist for the school district who helped coach the Lodi High team, smiled as he watched his players celebrate and congratulate their opponents.

“It’s really special...the whole school has created an atmosphere of giving the kids the full basketball experience,” Grim said.

Nicco Virrey, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lodi High, beamed with pride after scoring 16 points for his team.

“It feels good,” Virrey said. “It was a great game.”

Miguel Guzman, 15, another Lodi High sophomore, also enjoyed the game.

“I like being on a team,” Guzman said.

Kirk Klucznick, an adaptive P.E. specialist and coach for Bear Creek’s team, was equally proud of his players.

“This has been an awesome experience, I’m glad we got this going,” Klucznick said. “I’m grateful that Erin Aitken and Jon Grim suggested it.”

Aitken — who worked as a special education teacher for 18 years and an athletic director for nine years before becoming Lodi High’s assistant principal, said she reached out to Northern California Special Olympics Unified Sports late last year and asked them to sponsor the league.

“I was able to secure a grant, along with the other three high schools, to cover the cost of the uniforms,” Aitken said. “Each school received $500.”

Starting Dec. 10, 2018, the teams practiced two or three times a week before the games began last month, Aitken said.

“Everybody played each other once, and we had the culminating showcase today,” Aitken said on Thursday. “We matched them up based on what we felt would be the most even play, based on previous contests.”

Tokay and McNair faced off in the second game of the day, with Tokay gaining a narrow 14-13 point lead over McNair by halftime.

“What a tremendous game,” Nutting said.

Tokay’s cheerleaders kicked off the halftime show, followed by Lodi’s cheerleaders who performed a routine on behalf of McNair.

The game remained close throughout the second period, although McNair pulled off a 29-26 victory over Tokay before the players lined up to receive their medals and congratulate each other.

“It was awesome,” Daniel Romero, an 18-year-old McNair senior, said. “I made some shots.”

Jose Ceja, a 14-year-old McNair sophomore, also enjoyed the game.

“Jose was good, Jose’s happy,” Ceja said.

Greg Gresham, a special education teacher who helped coach McNair’s team, smiled with pride as his players celebrated their victory.

“It’s a great experience for the kids to get out there and compete, especially in front of a crowd,” Gresham said.

Todd Herrington, an adaptive P.E. specialist who helped coach Tokay’s team, was happy his players had an opportunity to participate in a team sport.

“It’s been an incredible experience for the special needs kids,” Herrington said. “We had a great deal of support from Tokay High, and from every other school we’ve been to.”

Saul Ledesma, a 17-year-old junior from Tokay, was still full of adrenaline as he high-fived his teammates after the game.

“It was good,” Ledesma said. “I liked passing the ball.”

Cameron Prasolowicz, an 18-year-old senior from Tokay, shared Ledesma’s excitement.

“I like dribbling the ball and trying to shoot,” Prasolowicz said. “I liked how I tried to hustle out there. The more I kept running, the more tired I got.”

Aitken thanked the adaptive P.E. specialists and special education teachers from each school who helped make the games possible, and said the friendly competition has already started to create a more accepting climate at Lodi High.

“It’s been a truly inspirational event, and it’s really mind-boggling how well it took off,” Aitken said. “It’s really a testament to all the schools and their students.”

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