William Monroe High School students, parents, grandparents, siblings and younger kids from the local primary school filled the high school gymnasium with enthusiasm and energy ahead of the Medford League basketball game Jan. 28 against Albemarle County. Although it was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, it felt like a Friday night as high-energy music blared from the speakers, cheerleaders lined up their signs and rustled their pompoms, parents jostled for a good spot and teachers greeted visitors with enthusiasm.

The school’s gym is not big enough to house the entire student population at once, so administrators organized it so a third of the student population could attend each of the home games this season. Many of the teachers came out to see their students play, and some parents and grandparents took time out of their days to come and cheer for their athletes. Additionally, special needs students from the primary school were in attendance with their teachers.

As 11th grade athlete McKenna Donahue (WMHS varsity volleyball) finished her beautiful rendition of the national anthem, the packed gym erupted in cheers from all sides.

WMHS coach Jesse Lamm joined the teachers and students to line up as each player was announced and bounded onto the court, to raucous cheers and high fives from both teams.

“The absolute best part—for me—is when they’re sitting on the benches and they announce everyone,” Lamm said. “So you know the kids are on the benches with their jerseys on and we’re all lined up cheering for them and when the announcer says their name and they get to get up and run off that court … I have goosebumps just talking about it. I mean I really do because they’re excited. And then their parents get to see that and get excited and it’s just it feels so good.”

One thing’s for certain: this is no ordinary Tuesday morning.

The Medford Basketball League started in the early 1970s in Chesterfield County. Named for Zipporah Taylor Medford, the first head teacher (principal) of Richmond’s special education school, Hickory Hill, the league began as a one-day field day event between Hickory Hill and Virginia Randolph training centers. Since that first day of games (including basketball), the league has expanded across Virginia, with local leagues popping up across the state.

The 2020 season marks the first year of the Medford League for Greene County, who played against Fluvanna and Orange Counties already this month.

For the past several years, the special education program at William Monroe has offered Champions Together, a track and field program serving the intellectually or physically disabled student population. Jesse Lamm and Erin Lam serve as track coaches and also work with the special needs students during the school day. Together with Jess Stafford, girls varsity basketball coach, the three ladies pitched the idea of the Medford League to administrators after hearing of the participation by neighboring counties Fluvanna and Orange in the past few years.

With eight teams in the local league, last Tuesday’s game was the second of four home games for 2020. The Dragons will play next at Madison County High School on Feb. 14, against Monticello High School at home on Feb. 18, at Eastern View High School on Feb. 28, at home against Culpeper County High School on March 3 and at Louisa County High School on March 10.

Stafford heard about the local Medford League from her connections in the world of basketball, specifically Laura Beth Chambers, adaptive PE teacher and coach for Orange County, and Nick Ward, special education teacher and boys basketball coach from Fluvanna. The local league tournament started in Fluvanna in 2014.

“I knew Laura Beth (Chambers) and we were talking and I follow her on social media and she kept talking about the Medford League and having pictures of her kids and how incredible it was and even years ago I was like, how amazing would it be to be a part of something like that?” Stafford said. “You could just see everyone’s sheer joy, everyone involved from the players to the coaches to all the kids that are in the stands. [It] just looked like something that I knew that we needed to be a part of.”

Stafford has wanted to bring Greene County into the Medford League for a few years but wasn’t sure how to make it all happen until she started talking with the Champions Together track coaches.

“So, at the beginning of this school year we got together and said, OK if we’re going to do this, we have to take it seriously. We came up with a proposal, created a presentation, took it to school administration and sat down with them and had conversations about the logistics of everything and how is this going to work,” Stafford said. “It’s this grand scheme thing we want to do but there are a thousand little things that have to happen in order for it to take place.”

Once the school administrators were on board, Stafford and her colleagues worked tirelessly to make the program a reality for their students. Lamm helped organize the school buses, permission slips and necessary paperwork, and Lam worked with the special education department teachers to be sure all the students’ needs were being met.

“I really want to stress just how much it’s warmed my heart just how we started this and our school is building it,” Lamm said. “That’s just been the best piece for me just to see people with and without disabilities who are recognizing how important this is.”

“I think you have a hard time understanding it until you go [to the game],” Lam agreed. “We can’t really put into words what it looks like and the atmosphere that’s in that gym until you experience it for yourself. We had so many people come up to us afterwards or we saw so many people in the stands who were like in tears watching this game because it’s just, especially for parents, something they’ve never been able to see their child participate in.”

The team practices during PE class with help from their teachers, coaches and other students. Since after-school commitments are particularly difficult for this group of students, the games are held during the day and the rest of the student body is invited to attend, along with parents and other visitors.

As the buzzer sounds in the packed gymnasium, WMHS #30 Kyle LaTorre scores a quick first basket and the crowd goes wild. Shortly afterwards, the Albemarle team scores, and everyone cheers again just as loudly.

“I think that’s the coolest thing that I’ve seen, one of the coolest things is how much everybody gets excited about every basket, no matter, doesn’t matter which side of the score board it’s going on they just are so excited about that accomplishment,” said Lam.

Stafford’s team have been involved in every step of the Medford League, from helping teach students and assisting in practices to pushing team members in wheelchairs around the court or holding a modified basket during the game. Boys basketball players also served as referees, though they were more interested in making sure each kid was involved and having fun than in calling any fouls.

“That’s why I really enjoy having my team be a part of it because we teach them a lot of stuff; we teach them about basketball and the technicalities of things, but they teach us how to really love the game that they’re playing,” Stafford said.

At halftime, the entire gym stood to sing happy birthday to Dragons #11 Kyler DeHooge, whose face lit up in a giant smile. Then the DJ cranked up the music as both teams lined up at the home basket to take turns making free throws. Every player from both teams had two chances (or more) to score a point, with points for every basket going to both teams. Those who needed it were offered a modified basket for their shot, the entire production being managed by the peer helpers as the coaches cheered along with the crowd and the scoreboard continued to light up. By the end of the break the score was 52-50 with William Monroe in the lead.

“I had a parent of one of the varsity boys tell me the other day that when the young man that’s in the wheelchair gave him a high five that he had to hold back tears, that he just was so happy for him and the whole experience meant so much to him that he had to hold back. And I was like oh, that’s what this is all about,” said Lam.

“You want a buzz when you walk into the gym,” Stafford added. “You want a buzz just like it’s the biggest game of the playoffs, you want them to feel that excitement; and I think they did.”

Some of the modifications to a traditional basketball game were the addition of both a lower basket for players who can’t shoot as high and a handheld net brought by the visiting team for their student who was using a motorized wheelchair. This allows the basket to be placed in range for those players to dunk or shoot just like their teammates. Peer helpers, or non-playing athletes from the school’s other basketball teams, were on hand to remind players what to do and to push the wheelchairs around the court. The Medford League is all about making sure every student can be involved in the way they want to and are able to participate.

Throughout the game, whenever one player lost control of the ball, a teammate or opposing player would pick it up and pass it back. When one student took awhile navigating down the court, both teams stopped and waited to give him his chance at making a basket. While one Albemarle player practiced dribbling with help from a visiting adult, the Dragons started a slow clap that ramped up into a cheer as the player reached the basket and took his shot.

“We’re not calling fouls and stuff like that,” Stafford said. “The ultimate goal is for each kid to feel accomplished and a part of the team in whatever way, so it’s really kind of laid back.”

Parents could be heard calling out encouragement and reminders from the stands as various players took control of the ball. The cheerleaders led a chant of “De-fense! De-fense!” and audience members called out “good try!” and “Dribble! Hands up!” and various signs were held up whenever a basket was made. One young sibling of a player had brought a handmade sign with her sister’s name and jersey number for support.

As the gymnasium reverberated to the sounds of “YMCA” and “Final Countdown,” the action ramped up in the fourth quarter. Far from one coach’s initial fears that non-playing students might just attend the game as a way to get out of class for two hours, everyone in the gym seemed to be focused intensely on the action and cheering loudly for every point scored.

Dragons #22 Jeyda Rogers sunk a basket after a return from out of bounds just at the buzzer, bringing William Monroe’s lead to 62-58 at the end of the third quarter. Albemarle tied it up at the start of the 4th. After a brief pause in the action so Dragons #12 Bryce Bowman could get another try at his basket, birthday boy DeHooge brought the lead to 66-64 with only five minutes left in the game.

Dragons #50 Carly Perry scored her first basket, bringing the lead to 68-66 with four minutes remaining. Ten seconds later, Albemarle tied it up at 68-68, then took the lead 70-68 with three minutes on the clock. The Dragons pushed back with two more baskets in the last minutes of the game, and #30 LaTorre scored once more with 1:20 left.

With mere seconds left in the game, Dragons #12 Bowman got possession and took a shot at the modified basket. The clock actually stopped with just under four seconds left so peer helpers could grab the basket and give him another shot, and the gymnasium erupted as he brought the final total to 72-76. Albemarle may have won the game, but everyone who played was a winner that day.

“It’s more about the experience than the competition,” Stafford said. “Not to say that the kids don’t pay attention to it, because they do, but at the same time, success looks like every kid having a positive experience.”

After eight games this season, the final tournament will be held at Orange County High School. The coaches also hope to host an awards banquet at the end of the season to honor all the students who participated.

“Kids from our team are giving high-fives to kids from the other team,” Stafford said. “It’s a lesson in sportsmanship lived out loud. Like you’re watching what sports are supposed to actually be like. Yes, there’s competition, yes the score is kept but at the end of the day, you’re just two teams playing a sport that you love; and they emulate that.”

“That’s one thing I think that we don’t really understand until we’re a part of something like this, is that you can learn way more from these kids than we could ever teach them,” Lam agreed.

“Every time we leave an event or even a practice, I always feel like very thankful, very grateful, and like no matter what else happens today, I had a really good day because that hour that I just spent with those kids was amazing,” Stafford continued.

The Medford League impacts far more people than just the players on the team.

“The other cool thing, and Jess (Stafford) did a lot of this but on that day, the students are reffing,” Lamm said. “The students are setting up our chairs. The students are MCing; we have a DJ. They’re doing the scoreboard. Our cheerleaders come out. They’re making signs … they’ve created playlists for our warm-ups. We’ve been able to get a lot of students involved.”

“Right now it’s mainly the basketball team,” noted Lam. “So the girls basketball team of course Jess (Stafford) has them on board. There’s only a few that are able to attend the practices but they’ll come and cheer them on. They’re out on the court with them. Those that need pushing of the wheelchair they help with that. They’re reffing. So just about anything they can do.”

According to Lam, some students in the special needs classrooms were hesitant to sign up at first because they didn’t know what to expect. But after attending the first home game on Jan. 21, four more signed up because they wanted to be a part of the fun.

“Being here and seeing the buy-in from our school and our people and the effects that it had … I didn’t think about the ripple effect it would have on so many people,” Lam explained. “You think, oh this is going to be cool, these special needs individuals that have never been a part of anything like this are going to be able to be a part of it. And you don’t think about the affect it’s having on the peer helpers who are having these life-changing experiences; they’ve never interacted with individuals with special needs. They were all ready and willing but maybe a little hesitant until they got into it and realized that they’re not so different.”

Last week’s game was only the second of four home games to be held at WMHS this year, and already the teachers and coaches are seeing ripple effects among the student body.

“The really cool thing is because I’m with these kids during the day, now we’ll go walk down the hall and these kids are passing them, the kids on the team and they’re speaking and say ‘hey good game’ and they’re now more a part of this community than they were before. And moments like that make this all worth it,” said Lam. “And then … the fact that those kids from the primary school came. They’re now looking at what they couldn’t do that they can now. So I just don’t think we had any idea of the ripple effect that it would have on the whole school system, and how it would be kind of life-changing for not only these kids but kids outside of the special needs community.”

For anyone who is does not typically call themselves a basketball fan, Stafford had a simple explanation of what to expect at a Medford League game: “You’re going to see it the way it’s meant to be played.”

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