De La Salle leaders said they had to make a big deal of it because the March 11 state championship was the first in the school’s history. It came in unified basketball, an Illinois High School Association-sanctioned sport run in cooperation with Special Olympics, from a team made up of De La Salle students and students from Southside Occupational Academy, which prepares 18- to 22-year-olds with intellectual disabilities for the next phase of their lives.
“Nobody expected us to win,” said Coach Tom White, De La Salle’s athletic director, noting that the team beat the three-time state champions in the semifinal round.
Josh Long, principal of Southside Occupational Academy, said he approached De La Salle’s principal about doing unified sports together at the beginning of the school year.
“He opened his arms and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Long said.
The schools started in the fall with bowling, continued with basketball and have unified track and field for the spring.
De La Salle Principal Tom Schergen said he was thrilled to do it. Schergen’s educational background is in special education, and his oldest son has autism. His two younger children are at De La Salle, including sophomore Tim Schergen, who played on the unified basketball team.
“It’s a great opportunity to expose our students to a new group of students,” Schergen said. “It’s been a great journey.”
Schergen said De La Salle students have been eager to play on unified teams, and have developed real friendships with their teammates from Southside.
For Long, that was one of the most beneficial aspects of the program.
“For us, everything is learning,” he said. Some students work at internships to develop skills they will need in life, and building friendships the way they did with their teammates is an important skill, he said.
Team members each had a chance to make remarks during the pep rally, when they received championship hats, posters and basketballs.
“I had a great time playing with such cool people and being a family,” said De La Salle’s David Coffey. “I hope to do it again next year.”
White said he was familiar with Special Olympics because he had a nephew with Down syndrome who participated.
“He would always show me when he got a new medal,” White said. “Something about the competition, it was like the differences faded away and everyone was just focused on competing.”
So White loved the idea of unified sports as soon as he heard about it. Special Olympics and IHSA have been running unified sports for a few years, but this was De La Salle’s first year in the program.
He was impressed by the dedication of all his players.
Southside’s Matthew Furdge, he said, impressed him by stopping play during the championship tournament to check on a spectator who had fallen from the bleachers.
“He knew what was really important,” White said.
Furdge agreed, and added that he checked again after the game to make sure the man was really alright.
Furdge said he enjoyed spending time with teammates, and the excitement of winning the championship.
“I want to do it again next year,” he said.
“We have a saying on the team,” White said. “NWG — now we go. We’ll talk about something, and then we say, ‘NWG,’ and we go and do it. So for next year, NWG.”