Tribune-Review - Matthew Santoni | Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Westmoreland County Special Olympics athlete Alex Heiple receives a hug from Nate Cieply after he made a three-pointer during a basketball clinic with Westmoreland County Community College's Wolfpack men's basketball team at Hempfield Township Athletic Complex on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017.
Alex Heiple squared up, then deftly sunk a three-point shot from the top of the key to the whoops and high-fives of his teammates and coaches.
He may not have known it, but the whole basketball court was buzzing with drills and enthusiasm Thursday night largely because he'd been practicing his shots two years ago in Hempfield's Swede Hill Park.
Heiple and other athletes from Westmoreland Special Olympics were holding a basketball clinic at the Hempfield Township Athletic Complex Thursday with members of the Westmoreland County Community College Wolfpack men's basketball team.
On Saturday, the Special Olympics team will play an exhibition game during halftime of the game between WCCC and the Community College of Beaver County.
"It's a great relationship, and I hope it continues for many years," said WCCC Coach Stu Silverberg.
Silverberg had been passing through Swede Hill Park two years ago when he struck up a conversation with Heiple and his helper as they played basketball, he said. He realized then that an old acquaintance of his, Anthony Monstrola, was running the Westmoreland Special Olympics basketball program, so they worked together to set up the first clinic in January of last year.
"Everybody isn't given the same opportunities we have. Just to see these kids smile makes you feel special," said Jordan Johnson, 21, of White Marsh, Md., one of the Wolfpack players running the Special Olympic team through shooting, passing and dribbling drills.
Dennell Hines, 22, of Fort Washington, Md. recalled one Special Olympian last year who tried at least 20 times to make a shot, and missed enough that Hines took him aside to another hoop until he made one.
"He said, 'The real MVP is the person who doesn't give up on me, and you, my friend, are the real MVP,'" Hines said. "That's what moved me."
The Special Olympics basketball players ranged in age from 8 to 45, with skills that went from the most basic dribbling and shooting to the ability to run 5-on-5 plays up and down the court, Monstrola said.
The overall program was in its fourth year, he said, but the clinics and exhibition games started last year and have expanded to also include athletes from Seton Hill University and Pitt-Greensburg.
"It's a real friendship-builder and confidence-booster," Monstrola said.
"The kids love it. On a college floor, it's just amazing exposure."
Wolfpack players ran alongside the dribblers encouraging them, threw up mock blocks on some of their shots, and even physically lifted one of the smallest participants so he could make a layup. Participants high-fived, mugged for their parents' cameras and showed off their best moves on the court with boundless enthusiasm.
"I know our kids are having a great time here," said Debbie Cieply, 49, of Smithton, whose sons Matthew and Nathan were in the Special Olympics program. "But if you look at the athletes, they get 100 percent that they're here helping our kids, and they're having the time of their lives sharing what they know."