For any fan in the stand at the District H Basketball Tournament on Feb. 8 at Wesclin High School in Trenton, the competition for Effingham County Lightning Special Olympics team was intense, yet awe-inspiring. As underdogs of their divisions, both Effingham County Lightning teams fearlessly faced their much taller and more aggressive opponents. Those who witnessed the games learned a valuable lesson that day: the heart of a champion is not always evident by the type of medal awarded at the end of competition, but rather by the athlete’s display of true sportsmanship, courage to face more aggressive opponents, and determination to get back on the court, despite the odds.
Effingham County Lightning’s Shane Soltwedal of the ECL White team won the Sportsman award in the team’s first match, a game in which he scored 12 points, brandished smiles and elicited cheers for each basket sunk. Shane’s teammate, Rachel Zakutansky, helped lead the team in scoring for both games with a total of 14 points, and athlete Dallas Tegeler was the leader of re-bounds with a total of 10. Although they played one of their best games ever in scoring, rebounds and steals, Effingham County Lighting White was not able to pull over the upset on Mt. Vernon’s Mavericks.
At the end of the day, as the Mavericks were awarded gold medals and team trophy, many expected the ECL White team to be heartbroken and possibly apathetic about not playing any more basketball. Yet, they were wrong. When the team was asked by coaches Susan Zakutansky and Manny Wei if they wanted to play team basketball again next year, they received a quick response from Special Olympics athlete Rachel Zakutansky stating, “I want to keep playing basketball. We haven’t made it to State yet.” Teammates Angie Haarmann and Jessica Ludwig agreed.
Another star play of the Effingham County Lightning Black team, Joe Westendorf, also received the Sportsman award in the Division 2 basketball game against the Phoenix Chargers, a new Division 2 team this year at District. Joe’s amazing shooting landed him 18 points during the game, and he led the team in steals and rebounds. Due to his successes, Joe became the target of an opponent’s anger, yet maintained his own composure to not react with violence. Instead, Joe showed compassion and inspiring levels of forgiveness by continuing to play the game with a positive attitude. Athlete Jay Borries was the second leading scorer for the Effingham County Lightning Black with a total of 21 points for both Division 2 games, and support from teammates Chase Wendte, Kraig Dahnke and Callie Westendorf helped push the points up for two close games between ECL Black team and their opponents. In the end, however, Effingham County Lightning Black team lost the Division 2 games and were awarded bronze medals for their 3rd place finish.
“Effingham County Lightning teams did not walk away from District with team trophies or even a W for the day, but they walked away with more respect, dignity and sportsmanlike character than any other team, having won 2 Sportsman Awards and setting the example for comradery,” said Vanessa Duncan, SOILL East Central/Area 9 Director.
So now while the District H gold medalists prepare to advance to the Special Olympics Illinois State Basketball competition in March, the Effingham County Lightning coaches and athletes prepare to take the Polar Plunge! At Lake Sara on Feb. 28, the Effingham County Lightning team will run into the freezing waters of Lake Sara to raise money for Special Olympics Illinois and to show their team unity, commitment to sports and dedication to Special Olympics Illinois athletes. Funds raised at the Effingham Polar Plunge help to continue the tradition of providing free, year-round, sports trainings, competitions and growth opportunities to persons with developmental disabilities. Show your support to the Effingham County Lightning Plungers by donating to their fundraising efforts at www.plungeillinois.com.