Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink Intern Staff Reporter.
Five Hollister basketball players are coming home with silver medals from the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. The players are part of the team representing Northern California, along with four Gilroy athletes and another from Morgan Hill.
The team lost its match for the gold medal to Pennsylvania 25-19 on July 5 after beating Virginia for the second time in the Olympic Games earlier that morning.
“It’s still a little hard to think about losing by three points [near the end of the game] and all the things we could’ve done,” Coach Melanie Kakalec said.
Northern California debuted with a 38-27 loss to Oregon on Monday June 2, but rebounded with a 32-10 win over Virginia the next morning. They ended the regular play that evening with a 41-15 loss to Kentucky, which seemed to be the strongest team in the division as it finished undefeated in its three games, outscoring its opponents by a combined 91 points.
Coach John Nolan said the local players found out the special olympics organization chose them to represent Northern California in January.
“They were kind of flabbergasted just like I was,” Nolan said. “They were all very very excited to go.”
It was twice as rewarding for Nolan because his son, Mike, is a player on the team.
“It’s pretty special,” Nolan said. “He has been playing as long as I can remember.”
That’s the case for a lot of the players, Nolan said most of the participants have played together for over 20 years.
Nolan is not only the father of one of the players, but a father figure to others on the team.
“John [Nolan] is like a father figure to me, he always makes me happy,” Raul Correa said. He also said coach Kakalec gives him a lot of support.
Other players like Alex Bemis and Jermayne Kendall from Gilroy and Gilbert Ruiz from Hollister echoed same sentiments about how nice the coaches are to them and push them to play better.
For another Hollister player, Guy Smith, the tournament served as a perfect way to say goodbye to basketball. He said he will stop playing because playing hurts his knees but will continue to support the team and play bocce ball, bowling, and baseball.
“I have learned so much about teamwork and team efforts and all that,” Smith said.
Nolan never planned to coach, he said. He began to help when there was a change in coaching. It’s been 15 years since Nolan took on the role as a coach, along with coaches Kakalec and Mark Reynolds.
Nolan said it had never crossed his mind to participate in the Special Olympics. He only thought of preparing the team to compete in the regional tournament, which consists of two games in one day. The Gavilan Rams were chosen to represent Northern California because the team won gold during the 2017 regional tournament.
The Special Olympics picks the team that will represent a region from a group of teams that won the tournament in their respective division, Nolan said.
“It’s kind of a lottery draw but you have to won your regional tournament,” Nolan said.
The team practiced every Sunday for at least two hours beginning the first week of January, Nolan said. He added that the Special Olympics funded the South Valley Middle School gym for the team to practice, but once the tournament is over they have to find their own practice facilities.
Southside School donated some of its gym time for the team to practice, Nolan said. Other times, the team practiced at San Ysidro Park in Gilroy. He also said Coach Kakalec’s sister works at St. Mary’s in Gilroy and was able to work out something for the team to use that gym.
Out of the entire season, the team has missed only two Sundays of practice: the week after the regional tournament and Mother’s Day.
“The boys worked really hard,” Nolan said. “They always work hard but they seemed, as we’re leading up to the tournament here, their practices have become more intense. They’re more focused on trying to do things the way we ask them to do them. So they’re really pushing hard to do good which is really heartening to see and watch them do it.”
Nolan said because there are different skill levels, the Special Olympics assesses the 50 participating teams in addition to a self-assessment of each player and the team as a whole before the competition. Pools or divisions are then created to ensure teams compete within the same skill level.
Besides representing Northern California, the team was treated to a barbeque on July 4, a Seattle Mariners game on Thursday July 6, and visited the Public Market.
“It’s amazing what they can accomplish,” Nolan said before the tournament. “They’re a pretty special group of guys.”
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