Kierra Davis took a pass up the middle of the court Friday morning and hurled up a shot that missed its mark. But her effort still drew considerable applause from the bleachers.
She tried again moments later and scored the first basket of a special basketball game featuring Garner High School students and staff.
“It felt good,” Davis said.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
That kind of unconditional support is what the annual March Madness hoops game for adapted physical education students is all about. The game and activities that come with it give special-needs students some time in the spotlight and show them that their classmates are there for them.
“The goal is to give these kids the opportunity to show what they work on all year, to shine and show their skills,” said adapted PE teacher Jane House.
Davis, a freshman, and senior Vina Sims, another special-needs student, said they grew more and more excited as they prepared the past two months for Friday’s event.
Asked if she was nervous, Davis said: “No. We were happy about it. I practiced for the game.”
The event began eight years ago after one of House’s former students, Hunter Leslie, proposed the student-faculty contest.
“They never get to get in a game, so we thought we would create a game atmosphere for them where they got in and got to play the game,” House said. “What it’s evolved into is our student body comes out more and more each year. They show so much kindness and so much empathy.”
The student body did respond to the option to attend Friday’s event in the gym at South Garner High School, the swing space for Garner High students while their school is renovated this year.
Capacity in the gym is 2,600. The bleachers were filled on one side and about halfway full on the other side.
“They’re there for the right reasons,” House said. “It just makes your heart feel good to know that they care so much about their classmates.”
The turnout was a lot more than junior Kasey Adams, a peer helper for the adapted PE students, had anticipated.
“Everyone was so happy,” she said as a post-game celebration commenced.
The event has become a tradition the special-needs students look forward to each year.
“They ask about it from the start of the year,” said special education teacher Jake Smith. “The excitement doesn’t really peak until they get out there and start warming up and the kids start coming in. You can see them kind of start glowing. It’s a big deal.”
Last year’s March Madness event prompted Malik Stephens, now a junior, to sign up for an elective class as a peer helper.
He said students like him, who do not have disabilities, can also take something away from the event.
“The big picture to me is that these kids are no different than us and are some of the smartest kids at the school,” Stephens said. “Regarding their disabilities, they overcome things in life that we couldn’t overcome and they take it day-by-day and just have fun.
“Showing support to them, they feel like they are a part of the Trojan family, which we all are.”