Smiling faces and laughter abounded at the TeePee at Venice High School this past week as the Venice Special Olympics basketball team came to play against the Indians boys varsity team.
For the Indians, who had an off-day on Monday, it was a chance to share their love of the game with local members of the Special Olympics team during the holiday season.
While the Venice Warriors came away with the 76-72 win over the Indians, neither side was as concerned with the final score as much as they were focused on simply enjoying the game together.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Indians senior player Nick Giacolone said. “It’s awesome to come out here and give back to the people who are always there for us, supporting us. They look up to us, but really we look up to them because they fight so hard each and every day. It’s so awesome. It makes your heart warm to see how happy they are.”
Regular Indians supporters such as Clint Calhoun and Clint Faulkner suited up for the Warriors on Monday along with 11 other Special Olympians.
Forward Peter Dorey led the way for the Warriors, scoring 18 points. Dorey’s efforts were followed by Jose Corredor, Adam Carmona and John Rider, who all chipped in with 12 points each.
The game served as somewhat of a unique experience for the Warriors, who typically play against other Special Olympic teams and don’t often get to play in a high school gym like the TeePee.
“It was a lot of fun,” Carmona said of Monday night’s game. “It was cool to beat the big guys, especially because some of them could have a good future playing in college.”
The Special Olympians compete year-round against neighboring cities and counties in 14 sports that are fueled primarily by volunteer support.
When it comes to recruiting new people to help coach the teams, Sarasota County Special Olympics director Randy Klinger said he just needs people to give it a try.
“We’ve probably gotten 30 new volunteers in the past year alone,” Klinger said. “I tell them all the same thing — in the first two minutes, you’re hooked. And every single one of them have come back and said, ‘I’m hooked.’ It’s really that simple. These people are here to have fun and compete. They’re no different from anyone else. They really aren’t.”
The teams practice twice each week for roughly an hour and a half and focus on teamwork, run drills and scrimmage against each other.
When it comes to coaches such as Warriors coach Dominic Salustri, who has been coaching Special Olympics basketball teams for 10 years, the reason why he dedicates his time to the sport is a simple one.
“Seeing their faces,” Salustri said. “That’s what it comes down to. Our biggest thing with them is coming together as a family and as a team. That’s what we keep talking to them about. It’s all about being friends on the court, being friends off the court, and just having fun while they’re doing it.”
Though Monday’s exhibition game against the Indians was a unique experience for both the Warriors and the Indians, Klinger thinks both sides took advantage of the chance to make more friends.
“The joy of this game is what’s called inclusion,” he said. “We have traditional school students playing against our Special Olympic athletes. So not only are they playing against each other, but they’re getting to know each other and accept one another. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”