PLAIN CITY — Tony Trujillo ran out to the middle of the basketball court, put his hand next to his ear and pointed at the Fremont High students.
They cheered loudly. Another student flexed their muscles in the direction of the crowd. The students cheered louder.
Wednesday night was just like any other basketball game at Fremont High.
There was music, a pregame introduction video, cheerleaders, the national anthem, hundreds of fans, a dramatic starting lineup in the dark, a timeout that turned into a dance-off and a rowdy student section.
But this wasn’t another Region 1 boys basketball game. For the first time, Fremont hosted a special needs basketball game.
Students from the school’s special education classes suited up and played for either the Blue Angels or the Wolves. Both teams were coached by members of the varsity boys team.
Betsy Halverson got to watch her son Caden Halverson, a senior at Fremont, play in the game.
“It really touches my heart, he’s just ecstatic. He loves sports, basketball is his life and so to be able to come and have the student body support him and have all the fans here, have the cheerleaders and the basketball players, it’s just something that’s really exciting for him,” Betsy Halverson said.
Caden Halverson watches just about every Utah Jazz game on television, he’s played basketball in recreation programs as a little kid and started playing with the Special Olympics through Weber State about a year and a half ago.
“I’m just so excited,” Betsy Halverson said, pointing back toward the gymnasium. “I hope that they make this a tradition. You can just feel the excitement with all the kids, parents and families. It’s so good for all of these more typical kids, because when you see it, it’s just bringing a light to them to be able to help and coach.”
The idea for the game, according to the school’s athletic director and boys basketball head coach Corey Melaney, came from Scott Briggs, the former West Jordan head boys basketball coach.
Briggs organized the West Jordan Special Needs Clinic and Basketball Game for 16 straight years at WJHS. Farmington High also hosted a special needs game last Saturday.
Farmington’s head coach, Kasey Walkenhurst, organized a special needs game and camp when he was the head coach at Woods Cross High for multiple years.
“We’ve always had a great relationship with the special needs kids, I teach several of them in my class and they just have a great time. Everybody deserves their name to be called out loud and everybody deserves to have their moment,” Melaney said.
The special needs game Wednesday night was the first time the school’s hosted something an event like that, and it went off smoothly. Melaney said he’s had it on the calendar since the beginning of the year and started announcing it last week.
The bleachers were pretty much packed.
Heidi Aschliman, a special education teacher at Fremont for the past 18 years, said a lot of special needs kids hardly get to go to any of the varsity games at all, let alone play in one.
“It’s awesome. When they told us they wanted to do it, we talked to the kids, they were so excited. They couldn’t wait,” she said. “They were stoked, I don’t know how to describe it ... Jeni (Shepart) and Emma (Tenney) kept practicing the national anthem in my room and they just kept talking about. They were so excited about it and so were we.”
The game’s impact was far reaching, not just for the sheer joy of the kids playing in the game, but for the parents, families and the school community. For starters, there can be a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to special needs kids.
“I think it lets them realize that these kids are just like anybody else and they enjoy the same things, maybe at a different level, but they enjoy the same things that everybody else does,” Aschliman said.
One thing an event like this does is make kids aware of the opportunities they have.
“People take for granted the things that they can do and ... it’s like they don’t even notice that there’s some people that can’t do the things that they can do and things like this, I think, that would really open their eyes,” student body officer Allyssa Holmes said.
While kids suited up in Fremont basketball uniforms, some of the varsity basketball players donned the zebra-striped referee shirts and others suited up in their Sunday best and coached their teams to a 19-19 tie that came down to a thrilling finish.
After the game, kids threw t-shirts into the student section and posed with the coaches for pictures in front of the student section.
“It’s good to see that we as a basketball team support everybody at school and not just our friends or people we know,” Fremont junior guard Talmage Mitchell said.
“I think this is really special for the school as well as the community. For everyone to get out here, that’s big time. These kids deserve it more than we do, for sure,” Fremont junior Dallin Hall said.
The hope around the school is that Wednesday night’s game isn’t just the first, but the first annual. With the amount of interest and excitement before, during and after the game, it seems like it’s a no-brainer that a new tradition has begun.
“It’s so awesome to see them in a different setting other than a classroom, to be able to interact and have the student body come out and cheer them on,” Aschliman said.
“It’s ...,” she paused and nearly started to choke up. “There’s no words.”