By Lou Ponsi
On a Saturday morning at Thomas Lasorda Field House in Yorba Linda, there are enough high-fives and hugs being shared to make you forget the grind of the week before.
Players in the Yorba Linda Basketball's Challenger Division are being taught, encouraged and having their spirits lifted by high school players voluntarily share their time for an hour a week.
The high schoolers serve as "buddies" to the players who have a variety of special needs.
"The connection the players make with their buddies, that is why this is successful," said John Christensen,a former Esperanza High basketball coach who founded the league's Challenger program in 2009 with 15 players. Now there are 52.
From warmups, to dribbling and shooting drills to game action, the buddy is always at their player's side.
The Servite High basketball team has been spending Saturdays with the Challenger players for five years.
On a recent Saturday, players from Villa Park and Yorba Linda high schools joined in.
When the Servite team was asked to participate, the Friars' coach John Morris said the answer "was a no brainer."
"We're about more than just about basketball." Morris said. "We try to teach them life lessons and giving to others and putting Christ first.. and being Christ to others. What better way than this?"
On Jan. 19, basketball powerhouse Mater Dei defeated Servite, 78-61, in a Trinity League game. But the next morning Morris and his team were at the field house, pumped and smiling along with their Challenger buddies.
"Winning or losing a high school basketball game on Friday night isn't going be something that carries you in life," Morris said. "It's learning to give to others and put others before yourself. This is a great way for us to spend our Saturdays."
Servite senior basketball player Reilly Caya is in his third year as a buddy. "It's my favorite part of the year probably, coming here, seeing the kids light up," Caya said.
"In a tough league, the Trinity League, we have to deal with losses, and then you come here and you realize it's just basketball. It kind of puts things in perspective."
When Christensen was coaching at Esperanza, he noticed the younger bother of one of his players, a youngster with special needs who would be on the court shooting and dribbling between periods of games. "I kind of felt it in my heart to maybe do something," Christensen said. "He was kind of the genesis for this."
Christensen asked his two sons, both Esperanza players, if they would be willing to help if he was to start a program for other children with special needs.
One of those sons, Mitch Christensen, was a freshman then. Almost 10 years later, the younger Christensen is still showing up on Saturdays.
"It's been an awesome experience," Mitch Christensen said. "It's something that has stuck with me for the last 10 years, through high school and college and in the working world."
Tony Fonseca of Yorba Linda, father of player Nate Fonseca, 19, said the Challenger Division has been a great outlet for his son.
"It's what gets him up on Saturday morning and gets him going," Fonseca said. "He loves the opportunity to play basketball."
Pattye Duffner, mother of 8-year-old Happy Duffnet, has had her son in the Challenger program for three seasons. "It's fun for me as a parent because I get to see my son participate in a sport," Duffner said. "He loves every time he comes and then when the season is over he can't wait for it to start again."