TERRE HAUTE —
It was “March Madness at its best,” shouted a fan during the last minutes of the championship game between Jay and Clark counties at the Men’s Special Olympics State Basketball Tournament at Indiana State University on Sunday.
In true March Madness style, the game came down to the final seconds. A steal with 20 seconds left sealed victory for the Jay County Panthers.
Coach Alex Dunn, celebrated with his team as it received its gold medals a few minutes later.
“This was so much fun for me and the guys,” Dunn said. This was one of the toughest games the team has faced all year, he said. “You gotta love the sportsmanship” from both sides, Dunn said.
A few feet away, players from Clark County, which is in southeastern Indiana, accepted their silver medals. While the players were clearly disappointed, their coach, Bob Synder, was full of pride for his players.
“They played extremely well today,” Synder said. “It went right down to the wire. I’m just proud as the dickens of them.”
In all, teams from more than 40 counties, including Vigo, were represented in the 2013 Men’s Basketball Championship. The teams competed in sectional tournaments to earn the right to play in Terre Haute this weekend, said Dave Breen, director of sports management for the Special Olympics of Indiana.
Gold medals were awarded in nine divisions, he said.
Threatening weather sent several teams home early, but there was still plenty of tough competition Sunday afternoon. Fans filled folding chairs around several courts while players showed excellent skills passing, shooting and dribbling.
That high level of skill is a surprise to many people who first watch Special Olympics basketball, Breen said. “That stereotype is quickly broken,” he said. “We have some athletes.”
In another game, coach Randy Baehl led his Vanderburgh County Bobcats squad to a gold medal victory over the Howard County Wildcats in another hard-fought matchup.
“We play hard. We hustle. We work hard in practices and we have fun,” Baehl said after the game.
Coaching for the Special Olympics is like nothing else, said Clark County coach Synder as he put away his gear after his team’s heart-breaking loss in the final game Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve coached different sports for more than 20 years,” Synder said after getting a hug from one of his players. “There’s nothing like coaching Special Olympics. I love my kids.”
ISU, the birthplace of the Special Olympics in Indiana, has hosted the Men’s Special Olympics State Basketball Tournament since 1971. The university also hosts the annual Special Olympics Summer Games.
For more information on Indiana Special Olympics, visit the website at www.soindiana.org.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@