SOUTH HOLLAND | It's not the size of the Thunderbird but the amount of "Thunder" within the "bird."
Thornwood High School's Special Olympics basketball teams may normally give up some height in the front court, as well as the back court, but they extend the game to all corners of the floor with a tenacious defense that unleashes an opportunistic offense.
"We have good players here," said Thornwood sophomore Floyd King, who is a forward for the Thunderbirds "Blue" Team. "This is my second year playing basketball, but I also do volleyball, track and field, and soccer.
"Basketball is fun, but soccer is my favorite sport."
That likely has helped King as a basketball player. By using nimble footwork as opposed to reaching in and drawing fouls, King was able to force numerous turnovers during the Thunderbirds' 34-27 home win over Rich Township on Dec. 4.
Thornwood also got a lift from the open-court finishing prowess of Ladonta Parks and Deandre Robinson plus the 3-point marksmanship from Jose Cardenas. The team remained undefeated for the season.
In the subsequent C level game, the Thunderbirds Gold Team also maintained an undefeated record while holding off a late surge by Rich Township for a 21-19 win.
A steal and layup from Tyshaun Barnes and several clutch defensive plays from Drew Dotson sealed the victory.
Both games were witnessed by a substantial Thornwood school-body populous.
"We're lucky to get this many people at our regular basketball games," said Thornwood special education teacher Amy Feigel, who also coaches bocce ball within Thornwood's Special Olympics program.
"Whenever we have condensed teacher prep days, that's when we usually host events like this. For our regular students who have P.E., there is usually not enough time to hold class, so they report to the gym and watch and cheer at the games.
"They've been very supportive of our special athletes."
Mary Wimmer, the Special Olympics Athletic Director at Thornwood, is pleased with the progress.
"The stigma is going away," she said. "With these athletes competing with pride in the name of our school, and the regular students seeing this and appreciating it, a culture of acceptance has developed here."
About 50 Thornwood student-athletes participate within the school's Special Olympics program. Many of whom, like King, compete in multiple sports.
Thronwood also fields teams in soccer, volleyball, track and field, bowling, cheerleading and snow-shoeing.
"It's racing with snow-shoes on, no matter if there's snow on the ground or not," said Jennifer Tesar, another special education teacher/coach within the program.
For more than two decades, Thornwood has hosted regional Special Olympics track and field events. Expanding the program to nine school teams has occurred in a span of just two years.
"A lot of work has gone into this, but I think you have to give most of the credit to the participants," Tesar said. "We have a charismatic group of special athletes who have said, 'Hey, we want to play and show what we can do.'"
There are plans to add other sports like swimming and tennis.
"But we want to make sure we have a good handle on the activities we're providing now before expanding too fast," said Danielle Jania, who is the Special Programs Department Chairperson at Thornwood. "We only had three sports last year, so the interest is definitely growing."
This weekend, Thornwood's Special Olympics basketball teams are playing at a tournament at Illinois State. King had already been to ISU last summer when he qualified for the Illinois State Special Olympics Track and Field Championships.
"It was a fun time," said King, who with other Special Olympic athletes was housed in the school's dorms during the championships. "I'm looking forward to going down there again."