The basketball left Terrence O’Bannion’s fingertips and the crowd rose to their feet.
The ball floated for a second, then hit the back of the glass and careened it to give the Culpeper County High School Blue Devils a slim lead.
The crowd, 1,200 CCHS students and fans, went wild -falling over each other and spilling onto the court even though it was only the first quarter.
It’s a moment that O’Bannion will never forget, and until this season, it was a moment he may not have experienced.
O’Bannion and his teammates play in the Medford Basketball League, started at CCHS, Eastern View, Madison and Orange this year, giving children with special needs an opportunity to experience the camaraderie and passion of organized sports in a high school setting.
Coordinated by CCHS and EVHS adaptive physical education teacher Franco Calabrese, the teams play six games throughout the season, three at home and three away – all during the school day.
Coached by fellow students, the team was obviously having a blast despite losing 48-46 to Madison Tuesday morning.
CCHS principal Danny Soderholm has a long history with the Medford Basketball League, after he was exposed to it as a teacher at James River High School in Chesterfield. He later became athletic director at Prince Edward High School started a team there and then went to Windsor High School and started a team there.
So when he came to CCHS this year, he was ecstatic to hear that there was interest in the league.
“When I came here Orange had been exposed to it and had seen the league that branched off from Farmville,” Soderholm said. “They saw that and they wanted to start it. I thought it was important.”
Soderholm smiled with pride as his student base enthusiastically cheered for every shot, going wild on big three pointers and slapping hands with the players.
“It’s a great way to teach 1,200 students empathy,” Soderholm said. “We also show that every student matters and everyone deserves to be cheered for and deserves the adulation of their peers.”
O’Bannion loves those cheers.
“It’s very good,” he said. “It’s fun. They come up to me and give me hugs. They tell me good job. That’s how we do it.”
Soderholm said it’s special for the coaches, students who volunteer their time to work with the students four days a week at practice.
“They love being the coaches, to be able to build those friendships,” Soderholm said. “They sit together at lunch, they work at practice four days a week. They go to away games together. It’s just like every other team.”
Joshua and Jessica Boss work with students during soccer season with TOPS soccer and immediately jumped at the chance to work with the special needs students in the Medford League.
“This is the world,” Joshua Boss said. “I can’t describe it. The crowd, the players, everything about it, it’s an amazing feeling. This is by far my favorite thing Culpeper has ever done. I love this.”
Jessica said it means everything to just see the kids smiling, happy and accepted by their classmates.
“It’s just an honor overall,” Jessica Boss said. “Just seeing these kids and having the whole school cheer for them everytime they make a shot. It’s a great feeling and the kids have a great time overall.”
Calabrese said he’s been impressed with the way the student base has embraced the league and the players.
“I thought it was pretty awesome, the way they’ve just taken the players in,” Calabrese said. “A lot of students in the general ed, they don’t get to experience this out in the community.”
It’s an opportunity for students who only had a chance to compete in the special games in the past, to be able to participate in an athletic event at their high school in front of their peers.
Their joy was palatable on their faces, especially Abby xxx, who hit a shot and then ran away mouth agape at the fact. The crowd roared in approval.
“It means a lot to them, it really does mean the world to them,” Calabrese said. “They really just feel a sense of purpose. They have meaning and self worth.”
For Soderholm, it just shows that Culpeper is inclusive and welcoming.
“Look at the smiles in the stands, it’s amazing, our students love it,” Soderholm said. “It’s just like a Friday night basketball game.”