Kreider Services’ hoopsters just might not take off their gold medals until they have new ones to replace them.
Both of the agency’s basketball teams, the Blue Demons and the Kougars, won their respective division’s Special Olympics state title. The tournament took place March 16-18 at Illinois State University’s Horton Fieldhouse in Normal and at Ilinois Wesleyan University’s Shirk Center in Bloomington.
The last time the program won two titles in the same season was 2006.
“They wear their medals all week long,” Kougars coach Lorenzo Caudillo said, laughing. “I’ve seen some of the guys, and they still haven’t taken them off.”
So how long will they showcase their spoils?
“Til next year?” program coordinator Lisa Olson suggested.
“Hopefully we can come back and repeat next year,” the Kougars’ Kevin Cardot said. “I think we can.”
Who are these guys?
The Kougars were technically a brand new outfit this season, even if they featured some players from the agency’s previous team, the Wildcats.
The Wildcats competed in the top division, which Caudillo compares to high school-caliber competition, but lost several of their key players over the years. It left a very talented bunch overmatched against the cream of the crop.
“We left districts with a bad taste in our mouth, to be honest with you,” Caudillo said. “If we lose, we can all handle that, but the guys knew they didn’t have a chance, no matter what they did. They had the heart and the will to compete with the teams at district, but the skill was just too much.”
It was time for a fresh start. The Kreider staff threw out a slew of names and let the players vote for their favorite, and the Kougars were born. In their first season as a Division-9 squad, they brought home the gold with a 56-33 victory over the Oak Lawn Eagles.
“We’ve been practicing so much and doing everything Lorenzo tells us to do,” Ryan Murray, better known as T-Ryan, said, “and we were able to show everyone what we can do. I got to play in front of my parents, [Tim and Jeanne].”
“The excitement on the guys’ faces when the final buzzer went off, that was everything right there,” Caudillo said. “Seeing the heart of these guys and their camaraderie, they didn’t care if they won or lost. They just enjoyed being around each other, and our last guy off the bench was just as important as the starter.”
“Without Lorenzo, there wouldn’t be a team,” Andy Fenwick said.
“He gives everybody a chance to play,” Cardot follows.
En route to the title game, they paid their sour experience from last year forward. The score got a bit lopsided in their semifinal game, a 51-31 victory over the NISRA Thunder Cats.
“We didn’t want to beat them so bad,” Fenwick said, “so we eased up on them.”
“We cheered them on,” Cardot said.
The score got out of hand because Tyler Bieser couldn’t miss.
“He was shooting the lights out,” Oelke said. “We accused his dad, [Steve], of putting something in his Gatorade.”
Speaking of Steve Bieser, he officiates the team’s scrimmages at practice. When the funds weren’t there to travel to state in a previous season, an anonymous donor stepped up.
That’s the rule, not the exception. Whenever the agency gets into a cramp, someone steps up.
Those who have worked with the program tend to show up unexpectedly. For instance, a former coach, scorekeeper and Americorps volunteer, Cydney Bunner, surprised them by showing up to see them play at state.
“You should’ve seen Bobby’s face,” current Americorps volunteer Dacia Souloiere said.
Never one to miss a beat, Bobby Trader gives a Hulk Hogan “I can’t hear you, brother” gesture in approval.
Heavy hearts, heavy medals
When Blue Demons coach Vicki Cover’s father passed away 5 years ago, her brother, Brian Mezo, moved in with her family.
She also became the Blue Demons’ assistant coach, and they won a state title in 2009. Now the head coach, she was joined by her daughter, Lisa Oelke, this season. The team’s undefeated season culminated with convincing victories at the Division 7 state tournament – 58-24 over the Mount Greenwood Mustangs, and 43-39 over the Good Shepherd Raiders.
“It was great to have my daughter with me and coaching with me,” Cover said. “It’s just such an incredible group.”
And Brian is one of their leaders. They call him the boss man, not just because he has a Rollie Fingers-caliber mustache.
“It’s because I’m the boss man,” he said with the biggest of smiles.
“We get fired and re-hired a lot,” Oelke said, laughing.
In the bonus
In addition to seeing Bunner again, the gang gets to see lots of old friends at state. And make some new ones, too.
They reunited with numerous athletes with whom they worked at Kreider and played sports with before they moved on to other agencies.
And what would a reunion be without a dance. There’s one every Saturday night of state weekend.
Keith Palmer, who’s deaf, exuberantly signs that he enjoyed the dance, the refreshments and a chance to chill out. And Mike Danekas and Clarence Novak both met girls at the dance. Mike and his new main squeeze, Amy, are still together.
Kougars Kevin Cardot Randy Conner Mike Danekas Travis Ellison Richard Engelkes Maria Erickson Andrew Fenwick Tom Higley Ryan “T-Ryan” Murray Jim Richardson Matt Stowell James Tompkins
Blue Demons Tyler Bieser Roger Burton Adam Carrington Kalvin Ellison Jennifer Grygiel James Houghtby Ryan McCarthy Brian Mezo Clarence Novak Keith Palmer Robert Saaijenga Emily Strom Bob Trader