PLANT CITY – The eight members of a Plant City Special Olympics basketball team proved Thursday that they are second to none.
The team, representing the state of Florida, beat New Jersey 44-36 to win first place at the U.S.A. Special Olympics games in Trenton, N.J.
“It was quite an accomplishment to take it to the national level and win gold medals,” coach Sandy Denham said.
The Plant City Raiders beat teams from Michigan and Tennessee on the way to the title game against New Jersey.
They won the medals in unified competition, where teams include regular education athletes and those with intellectual disabilities.
Unified basketball teams must have at least three players with intellectual disabilities on the court at any given time.
The Raiders celebrated Thursday’s title game victory with a meal at Outback Steakhouse.
The gold medal finish caps an amazing run for the Raiders, who have won state titles in four of the last five years. State champs are eligible to go to nationals, but there’s a selection process so only a limited number of teams advance. This is the first year the Raiders basketball team has been chosen, Denham said.
The Plant City roster includes Justin Bulgreen, Maurice Eston, Nathan Jones and Javaras Stevenson, who are athletes with intellectual disabilities; and Jacob Dube, Jacob Goad, David “Bud” O’Callaghan and Jacari Stevenson, their on-court teammates and mentors.
Most of the players have been on the team at least five years.
Denham said about half of Plant City’s points in each game during the national competition were scored by players with intellectual disabilities.
“I feel like we are a team and we need team work. If the other (regular education) athletes are doing all the scoring, what’s the inspiration in that?” she said.
“I had a number of coaches from other states come up to me to say how much they liked that all our players are involved in the game and the scoring, she said.
A contingent of parents and friends made the trip to New Jersey to cheer on the Plant City team.
“The stands were packed with a lot of people cheering for them,” Denham said. “It meant a lot to the members of our team.”