By Jim Sullivan
---- — They lost two out of three, but they won in the end.
Ten Newburyport athletes made the trip down to Worcester on Saturday to take on three formidable teams in just over five hours in the Special Olympics state basketball tournament; and even if the game results weren’t what they were hoping for, the weekend away made up for it.
“The kids were great, they had a really fun time,” said head coach Lori Solazzo. “It’s more about the relationships and friendships they are building than the basketball. They definitely learned some skills, but we’re in it just to let the kids have a really fun time.”
Judging by the reaction of the players — Adam Kapp, Kaleigh “K” Alexander, David Junkins, Jared Bedard, Natasha Harwood, Ben Jansson, Stuart Linenfelser, Amanda Kelleher, Tyler Rivera and Eoin Robertson — that good time was achieved and then some.
“It was fantastic,” said Linenfelser. “They were great games.”
“I made a lot of shots,” bragged Alexander. “That’s about it.”
Accompanying Linenfelser and his fellow athletes were a large group of unified partners — Jordy Steelman, Connor Glynn, Adam Traxler, Brandon and Evan Trego, Nina Harrington, Maggie Willingham, Catherine and Ashley Casellini, David Henderson, Cameron St. Onge, Emma Adams, Alex Edwards, Jenna Gabriel, Cole Lewis and Peter Blangiardi. Many of the partners are varsity NHS athletes themselves who taught the athletes some of their skills and made sure everyone had a good time.
“Even though we did lose every game,” said Henderson, a junior, “everyone had fun. Everyone had a blast. And that’s really all that matters in the end. It was a good time for everyone.”
“We did so good,” said freshman athlete Bedard. “I got a 3-pointer.”
Steelman was quick to point out that Bedard had in fact six three-pointers on the day.
“Jared hit some big shots, especially that one big 3-pointer,” confided Steelman, a senior varsity Clipper point guard and all-league soccer player.
This was the last Special Olympics tournament for Steelman, who has been a unified partner in both soccer and hoops since he was a freshman, and he was excited to see such a big unified partner turnout for his final trip.
“This is my last tournament, so it’s a little sad,” admitted Steelman. “But it was a good tournament to end on. I had a lot of fun. Hopefully the underclassmen can carry the tradition on.”
Coaching along with Solazzo and husband Matt were alumni James Colburn, Mike Nardone and Cam Toye.
“It was a good time, we had a really good time,” said Colburn before yelling out; “And we lost every game!”
“It was actually better that we could play our games all in one day,” confided Toye. “Then we could just hang out.”
Newburyport started off against the Taunton Tigers in the first game of the tourney down 18-4 at the end of the first quarter. They were able to come back, 23-25 at the half but ended up losing, 30-25.
Dartmouth proved to be very tough in the second round, but Port still finished, 32-24.
“They were way out of our league,” Lori Solazzo said of Dartmouth. “They should’ve been in a higher division. But the kids got to play.”
Newburyport finished the day with a back-and-forth tilt against Heller’s Angels Cougars, 32-22, scoring their last 10 points in the last minute.
“We’re a young team and it showed early,” said Matt Solazzo. “But we kind of figured it out toward the end. We went to the hotel after the game. We ordered pizza, hung out and then went to a dance.”
“They represented Newburyport very well,” added Lori Solazzo.