MUNSTER | The gym was packed. The Friday night tunnel was in line. A long line of cheerleaders extended the emotional channel out to midcourt.
One by one by one, members of the Special Olympics Westlake All-Star basketball team run out onto the court. When the players stopped in the middle of the pulsating moment, a Munster varsity basketball player handed them a new jersey.
This first move in opening greater opportunities for special needs student athletes lifted up many last Friday before the top-ranked Mustangs played South Bend Riley.
"To see the look on those kids' faces when they were introduced and ran through the line and when one of my players handed them a jersey, the look on their faces was priceless," Munster coach Mike Hackett said.
Munster's Craig Dedelow was equally moved after the game.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Dedelow said. “We see them at school, and the guy I gave a jersey to, I know him by first name. He gave me a big high-five. He’s a really nice kid.”
Munster principal Steven Tripenfeldas said this event was over a year in planning. But it worked perfectly well with the IHSAA's partnership with Indiana Special Olympics, which was announced in December.
In the IHSAA's news release, it said the 410 member schools will be encouraged to have their coaches and students to participate in Special Olympics events and support the organization.
"The opportunity for the IHSAA to partner with Special Olympics of Indiana may prove to be one of the most profound decisions made by the Association in the ongoing development of student leaders in an education-based athletic setting," IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox said. "I am most pleased that our Student Advisory Committee has decided to engage with and support the activities of one of our state's most important organizations."
Tripenfeldas hopes this initial event will open doors for more athletic opportunities for all student-athletes.
He said Special Olympics athletes rarely get a lot of attention. He hopes this knowledge will grow along with more opportunities, including team sports. Tripenfeldas hopes to see IHSAA tournaments for special education students.
And with the U.S. Education Department declaring recently that athletic opportunity for students with disabilities is a civil right, Munster and the IHSAA might be leading the charge in changing in the traditional landscape.
Like Title IX, the federal government is requiring schools to make reasonable modifications for students with disabilities or to create parallel athletic programs to traditional prep sports programs.
On Wednesday night, Westlake, which is a co-op of students from Munster and Lake Central, played Crown Point in a game at Lake Central. The Indians cheerleaders and pep band gave backdrop to the event.
Brad Hemingway's son, Joe, is a member of the Westlake team. Along with being Munster's football manager, Joe was a part of last Friday's event at Munster.
"He loves being involved with kids," Brad Hemingway said. "When I graduated from Munster in the early '70s, those kids were segregated. Joe is thrilled he can participate with the high school basketball players."
Two years ago, as Munster was advancing to the Class 4A semistate, several Mustangs stopped by a Westlake practice and worked out with the players. Hemingway said his son still talks about that.
"He loved getting the recognition in front of the crowd," Brad Hemingway said. "He ran out there waving his hands. It was a thrill.
"Inclusion is a big part of their education. I think down the road (IHSAA athletic competition) will come to fruition. These kids are just as competitive as other kids.
"I think we're moving in the right direction."