Local Special Olympians make school district history

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Top row from left are peer volunteers Neil Stephens, Victoria Stephens, Marcus Vega, Robert Simpson, Meghan Whitehead, Kaitlyn Wood and Brody Reynolds. Center row are Head Coach Christopher Klepper, volunteers Leo Rodriguez, Justin Wood and Brandon Wood, and Co-Coach Jarred Sudekum. Front row are student athletes Toby Knight, Mark Poole, Andrew Rimann, Robert Morris, Lucius Manchese, Karla Henriquez and Bryan Mapel. (Dana Delgado Photo)

Top row from left are peer volunteers Neil Stephens, Victoria Stephens, Marcus Vega, Robert Simpson, Meghan Whitehead, Kaitlyn Wood and Brody Reynolds. Center row are Head Coach Christopher Klepper, volunteers Leo Rodriguez, Justin Wood and Brandon Wood, and Co-Coach Jarred Sudekum. Front row are student athletes Toby Knight, Mark Poole, Andrew Rimann, Robert Morris, Lucius Manchese, Karla Henriquez and Bryan Mapel. (Dana Delgado Photo)

By Dana Delgado

The final practice for Team Liberty Hill in preparation for their much anticipated inaugural entry in the Special Olympics couldn’t have gone any better.

“It was our best practice,” said Christopher Klepper, designated Special Olympics Coordinator for the Liberty Hill Independent School District, as he directed the players through spirited basketball drills at the old Intermediate School gym. “Everything just came together.”

Seven athletes including Toby Knight, Mark Poole, Andrew Rimann, Robert Morris, Lucius Manchese, Karla Henriquez and Bryan Mapel representing four LHISD campuses put in heroic efforts during the practice session in preparation for the basketball drill competition, according to Coach Klepper. Each wore a purple jersey with the number 42 emblazoned on the back in honor of baseball icon Jackie Robinson, an inspirational figure who Klepper said represents overcoming great odds, never giving up and helping others.

The specific events the athletes would be competing in at the Special Olympics were dribbling for time, the target pass, and a spot shooting contest. After six weeks, the confidence and enthusiasm had grown, Klepper said.

“It’s been a great six weeks,” he said.

When the team broke from their huddle at the end of final practice, one could sense the excitement from both the athletes and the army of student volunteers. For virtually every team member it was their first experience of being a member of an organized team.

For the high school volunteers like siblings Neil Stephens and Victoria Stephens, the experience has been rewarding.

Victoria, a high school junior and athlete herself who competes on the varsity track team and played on the junior varsity basketball team, said she finds the Special Olympians to be “pretty capable.”

Neil, a freshman at Liberty Hill High School where he plays basketball and baseball, has been impressed with the athletes preparing for the Special Olympics.

“It’s been better than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I take sports for granted and they actually try hard. My sister and I plan to go to the event to watch them.”

Other peer volunteers include Leo Rodriguez, Justin Wood, Brandon Wood, Marcus Vega, Robert Simpson, Meghan Whitehead, Kaitlyn Wood and Brody Reynolds.

After months of planning and coordinating by the school district and weeks of training for the athletes, Klepper, who is also serving as the head coach for the squad, said everyone was looking forward to the competition in San Marcos only days away. Unfortunately, on the eve of the event, an ice storm moved in, changing everything.

Klepper said officials from the Special Olympics called him with plans to delay the start of the competition and hopefully wait out the storm. Reports of icy road conditions followed by a rash of road closures prompted Klepper to withdraw the team from the competition for safety reasons. A short time later, the entire event was cancelled, not to be rescheduled.

“Yes, we were really disappointed to have to cancel our trip,” said Coach Klepper who after further reflection believes the cancellation was bittersweet. “Even though the event was cancelled, we really accomplished a lot in getting to this point. We established some comradeship among the athletes and peer volunteers; in addition, we established a meeting place to practice, made our uniforms, and established a Wednesday after school practice routine. All are great things!”

As a postscript to their season and a celebration of their successes, teamwork and being a part of Liberty Hill’s first ever Special Olympics entry, the team will travel together on a field trip to Cedar Park to watch the Austin Spurs this weekend.

Liberty Hill’s debut into the Special Olympics is in the history books, undeterred and undefeated. Although their hopes of participation were dashed, the athletes’ spirits are not dampened as they will be joined by other local Special Olympians in the next event — track and field. Practice was scheduled for this week, weather permitting, with a practice meet set for April 11 in Round Rock. The regional meet is slated for May 1-2.

Klepper said that a lot has been learned in preparation for this historic year involving Liberty Hill’s Special Olympians and added that more volunteers are needed and welcomed to assist and support the team in its efforts. Sharing coaching duties with Klepper is LHISD educator Jarred Sudekum.

“We’ve been in this journey together and are already planning for next year,” Klepper said. “I can’t wait.”

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