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Special-needs students impact others through high school athletics

Hanson High School senior Erica Brown goes up for a layup during girls’ basketball practice Dec. 18 in Alexandria. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

ALEXANDRIA — When Erica Brown gets called into a basketball game, the gym comes to life.

The Hanson High School senior junior varsity player lights up and is in her element, playing tough defense and launching 3-pointers.

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“It’s my favorite sport,” said Brown, who has a cognitive disability. “I like being with my friends, playing as a team and being a part of it.”

In Friday’s girls’ junior varsity basketball game against Menno, the guard/forward exerted every ounce of energy on the court during her 12 minutes of action. With cheers, sighs and “oohs” and “aahs,” it was clear Brown’s effort made an impact on every person in the Beavers’ gym.

Other inspiring scenes are experienced throughout the year in sporting events across the Mitchell area. Of 36 area schools, including Mitchell High School, eight have special-needs students who are involved in athletics this school year. Special-needs students have found roles on the court, in manager positions, videotaping games or on the sidelines.

Hanson assistant basketball coach Kim DeRouchey said working with Brown has opened her eyes to what sports are really about.

“It’s helped me learn that it’s not all about winning,” said DeRouchey, who’s been coaching for 29 years in volleyball, basketball and track. “It’s about making your players appreciate the sport. It’s about making kids feel good and seeing the look in their eyes when they do well.”

Brown has that twinkle in her eye when playing or talking about basketball.

She started playing the sport at a young age, shooting hoops with her cousins and sister, Emily, who is a junior for the Beavers. Emily plays in the junior varsity and varsity games for Hanson.

“We have an indoor and outdoor hoop at our house, so we can play if the weather isn’t good,” Emily said, adding it’s rewarding to see her sister work hard and succeed. “We play a lot of Horse and shooting games, and we don’t play one-on-one because it gets competitive.”

When Erica, or E-Bomb as her teammates and coaches call her, began playing with a team, she took instant shots whenever she was passed the ball, according to Michelle Doyle, a teacher’s aide at Hanson. Through the years, she has progressed in her passing and shooting skills and plays good defense.

“Her adrenaline when she gets into the game is like someone who’s going to touch the moon for the first time,” Hanson senior forward McKayla Moe said. “She pounces off the bench and shakes by the score table until they let her in. She finds the player she’s guarding and is ready to shoot.”

Erica gets to play 2 to 3 minutes at a time and is put in when the Beavers have a good lead, DeRouchey added.

“When the season starts, she knows she’s going to get a small amount of playing time but just being a part of it is what she wants,” Erica’s father, Dan, said. Other members of Erica’s family are mother, Debbie, and brother, Kameron, who is a sixth-grader in Alexandria.

Last season, Erica made seven 3-pointers in her junior year for DeRouchey. When Erica sinks a shot, the whole team feels the excitement.

“It feels better for me when she makes a shot than when I make one,” Hanson senior guard Sydney Dodd said.

“It could be an air ball, but we’re excited that she’s out there and having confidence to put up shots like that,” Hanson senior guard Leah Marsh said. “When she does make it, it makes everyone come together little bit more.”

Tricia Lasley, a sixth- through 12th-grade special education teacher, said she’s seen Erica also excel at being a team player and encouraging others.

“She’s not satisfied with herself if she’s not at the level everyone else is at,” Lasley said. “She still is going to give 100 percent all the time. She’s a cheerleader for everybody else too and wants to make sure everyone else is doing well.”

Erica has connected to her peers through the sport. During her high school years, Erica has been separated in the classroom and began going to LifeQuest in Mitchell this fall for half days.

Erica’s zest for basketball and life has impacted her teammates, friends, family members and teachers.

“She’s an inspiration to everybody,” Hanson girls’ basketball head coach and athletic director Jim Bridge said. “In all of my years, I’ve never had anyone with as much energy and enthusiasm. She may not have a lot of numbers on the stat sheet, but we all appreciate her.”

MHS senior leading the way

Mitchell High School senior Josh Brooks has led the Kernel football team out onto the field for the past four years.

“Here’s the big team and there’s me first in line, and we run out fast,” Brooks, who has Down Syndrome, said about the experience. “It was like Notre Dame. It’s pretty awesome.”

Brooks, who was named homecoming king in 2013, was a student manager for the Kernels since his eighth-grade year, filling up water bottles and doing other managerial tasks.

Ron Parks, an assistant coach for the Kernel football program, got Brooks involved in helping on the sidelines in middle school.

“I look for opportunities to help people if I can,” Parks said. “My big concern was how the other students would take it. A number of players took him under their wings and helped him and looked after him.”

Like Brown, Brooks used sports for a social aspect and to be a part of a team. He has also impacted his teammates through his role on the football field and in the swimming pool.

“We’ve always tried to include him in the classroom and that’s how we were with sports, too,” Josh’s mother, Patti, said. “We thought what can he do with kids and friends he wants to be with and help get some exercise. All of this stuff builds confidence for him.”

“Being around those kids who are good role models is good for Josh. All of these different kids we hear about when he comes home, they watch over him, too,” Josh’s father, Dave, said.

Getting involved in sports and other activities is something Dave and Patti believe has helped Josh become independent. Along with being a part of the Kernel football program and Mitchell Aquatic Club, Josh is in the school choir and an Eagle Scout.

“Coaches allowing him to help is huge,” Dave said. “He’s gotten to meet a lot of kids and they’ve gotten to know him.”

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.