BROOMFIELD — If you don’t leave a Unified basketball game feeling good, then there may be something seriously wrong with you.
A growing trend in the state, and in conjunction with the Special Olympics, is Unified basketball and the Adams 12 school district, with the help of district athletic director Ed Hartnett, recently formed a five-team league — including Legacy — that will continue for years to come.
The Lightning have the perfect man to coach the Lightning Special Olympians in Matt Kroupa. A computer teacher by day, Kroupa proudly throws on his No. 31 jersey and cheers his kids on from the warm-ups until the end of the game.
He didn’t even think twice when asked to be a part of it.
“The special ed kids are always in my class and I have already created a relationship with these kids,” said Kroupa, who teams with special education teach Jack Jaynes and Jody Welch on the bench. “These kids are the happiest people on earth and I just gravitate towards them.
“It just made sense that I would do this.”
The team is made up of eight special education students and five other students, who are only allowed to rebound and can’t shoot. There is an official on the floor, but that is more for show than anything else.
The Lightning team is led by Jorge Maciel, a talented scorer whose passion for the game and drive to win are off the charts.
“I’m pretty happy that I got a chance to play,” said Maciel, who team beat Thornton last Wednesday to finish a four-game round robin tournament 3-1. “It’s a good thing, because it brings the community together to watch us play.”
And the players get the full experience, from opening introductions to running through the tunnel of students and halftime entertainment.
Perhaps no single Lightning player soaks up the spotlight more than Jack Ray, who feeds off the energy of the crowd by waving his hands and celebrating with great fervor when he scores.
“Certain kids are humble, and certain kids like Jack Ray, he’ll let you know,” Kroupa said.
The highlight of the win over the Trojans last week came late from Elijah Bustamante . After he scored to give the Lightning a three-point lead, Bustamante showed off a little with a front hand spring.
“They talk about the pursuit of happiness. This is happiness,” Kroupa said. “It’s amazing and what is more amazing is the students that supported us and that happened at every school we went to. What makes it so special is that you never know what is going to happen.”
Hannah Ganoe, Leticia Terrazas, Ray, Andrew Nicol, Seth Ferguson, Shawn Clark, Bustamante and Maciel routinely brought the fellow students to their feet. And sure, they got a ton out of the experience, but it was just as rewarding for other students who played as well.
Jenna Fenton was a regular on the Lightning’s girls basketball team and was proud to throw on the jersey one more time.
“It’s different than actually playing basketball, because these kids just get so happy, it’s so cool,” said Fenton, who along with Kaylea Beck, Tyler Beck, Conner Bell and Josh Borchers proudly accepted their medals with the rest of the team at halftime.
“Even if I don’t shoot or dribble or touch the ball, it is so fun to see how happy they get when they score.”
Kroupa didn’t have any trouble finding kids to participate when asking around.
“I didn’t even hesitate to say yes,” Fenton said. “I knew it would be awesome opportunity. And they are great kids, I am so happy I got the chance to get to know them over these last two weeks.”
The Unified game, which was highlighted in between the Class 4A and 5A boys championship games at CU’s Coors Events Center last month, will be back for another season next year in the district.
“As long as the district supports it like they did, they started this and I give them credit,” Kroupa said, “and Legacy has a team, I will coach it.”
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