CARTHAGE, Ill. -- Maria Hopp and her son, Blake, were in the gymnasium Friday at Illini West High School to watch the basketball game they helped create for disabled students.
When her sons were still in school, Hopp noticed that Blake, who is disabled, was envious of his two younger brothers, who both had joined the basketball team.
"He would say, ‘When is my basketball game?' " Hopp said.
She approached the West Central Illinois Special Education Cooperative with an idea to start holding a game for disabled students. The first game was attended only by the students who were in physical education classes at the time and parents of the athletes.
"From there, they just took it and ran with it," Hopp said.
Almost a decade later, the fanfare of the game has come to rival that of any other high school basketball game. Both bleachers were filled with students for the game Friday morning. General and special education elementary students kicked off the event with a dance at half-court.
"It makes the kids feel really needed and important, that they've done something awesome," Hopp said. "They just want to feel like everyone else. They want to fit in."
The players, who are all special education students through the special education cooperative, ran onto the court through a banner crafted by art students that read "Get Fired Up." The band played them on to the court with "The Hey Song." When a shot went up, the crowd would erupt, whether the ball went in or not.
"Being in there where the high schoolers play their games every Friday night makes that really exciting," Hopp said.
Although he graduated two years ago, Blake, 23, got to participate in the game several times. He returns with his mother each year, either to watch or to help coach.
"It's very rewarding just to see how the kids act. It's fun to see them being accepted for who they are," Hopp said. "I can't say enough about the school for letting the students attend the game and opening up the gym to the public for support. "
Two weeks before the game, the athletes began practicing twice a week. Last week, they practiced every day. Although no score is kept, the game is a full-court match. The players run the floor to play offense and defense.
"It is so fun to watch, to see the kids' excitement," said Brenda Layton, whose son, Daylan, 12, participated in the game. "I like how they go all out for this. The school makes the special needs kids feel like they are a part of it."
At halftime, participants came together to perform a choreographed dance to a song from the movie "Trolls." The crowd began dancing along.
"It's an opportunity for our kids to be included and recognized," said Carrie Johnson, adaptive physical education teacher for the special education cooperative. "Ever since we started this, the gen-ed population goes down the halls giving our students high-fives. Over the years, it's brought the two groups together."
Three additional baskets of varying heights were set up to ensure that each student had the opportunity to score. Volunteers from Illini West's Git-R-Done Club also took to the court to help guide participants during the game.
"I've worked at a couple different schools as an aid or substitute teacher, and this is the most accepting school I've seen," said Stephanie Welte, the cooperative's head teacher.
The game was capped off with an awards ceremony, during which Hancock County Sheriff Scott Bentzinger handed out medals to each participant.