YORBA LINDA A basketball player encouraging the crowd to cheer. Teammates hugging as if they won a championship.
Scenes such as these played out last weekend during the CIF-Southern Section basketball finals and will certainly continue Saturday during the CIF State regional playoffs.
But those same bursts of enthusiasm and camaraderie also were found last Saturday in the Yorba Linda Basketball challenger division thanks to a key assist from Servite.
Members of the Friars' basketball program served as buddies to special needs youth and helped spark memories that last well beyond the season.
A special needs player encouraged parents in the stands at Thomas Lasorda Jr. Field House to cheer his name before he shot the ball. Players hugged after one of their attempts sailed into the net.
"It's beautiful," said Servite senior guard Otis Reale, who worked with classmates Braden Sprenger, Paul Gomez and Reilly Cayaamong others as a buddy. "We still have this passion (for basketball) and we see the kids who feel the same way about the sport and being with each other."
Parents of the special needs players believe the Servite students cultivate those feelings during the 10-week season, which is held on Saturday mornings starting in January.
The Servite players assist their buddies during warm-up, fundamental drills and group shooting.
The sessions are organized and supervised by adults but loose enough that spontaneous fun erupts like a sudden fast-break. Servite players are quick to offer high-fives or hoist a player toward the 8-foot baskets.
"These guys are so awesome," she Jennifer Foxx of Anaheim, whose son, Matthew, 11, has played in the league for a few years.
"I've done soccer and I've done baseball in the challenger leagues but the buddies have not had this kind of commitment at all."
Foxx's son, who has autism, was paired this season and last with Servite basketball players Devyian Roberson and Jacob Lord.
The boys' connection extends beyond the league. Matthew attended a Servite basketball game this past season, armed with signs for Lord and Roberson, two seniors.
"He really just wanted to see his buddies," Foxx said. "He loves them so much."
Jim and Jane Sidoni drive their 19-year-old grandson, Austin Dunlop, from Whittier to play in the league. Austin, who has autism and doesn't speak, also has a tight bond with his buddy, Jacob Cordova.
Jane Sidoni said Cordova has found ways for Austin to participate despite his difficulty with mobility.
"That's a sensitive 16-year-old," she said of Cordova, a Servite junior.
Austin communicates by typing on an electronic device such as an iPad.
"Jacob is a great friend and he teaches me great skills like throwing long shots and overhead passes," Austin wrote after his basketball session last Saturday. "I love coming every week."
The league's hidden benefit is what it means to the Servite players.
"Seeing (the players) smile after they make a shot or make a good pass, it really makes my day and makes my weekend," said Gomez, a senior. "And seeing how loving everyone is makes you appreciate life even more."
Servite basketball coach John Morris discovered the league about four years ago and encourages his players to volunteer.
League founder John Christensen, whose children attended Esperanza, has been blown away by the Friars' participation despite the heavy demands of the Trinity League on Friday nights. Christensen, who worked in public relations for the Portland Trail Blazers, knows the drains and demands of competition.
"Sometimes I'm really exhausted and I don't feel like waking up," said Caya, a junior.
"Once you get here, the positivity of these kids, the happiness, you're so glad you came. ... We just remember, it's bigger than (us winning in) basketball. It's about putting smiles on the kids' faces."
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