An elated Teresa Young was at a loss for words last Thursday, July 5.
The longtime coach for Special Olympics Georgia’s Hall County Traditional basketball team had just watched the joyous reactions of her players on the court at the University of Washington in Seattle. Some jumped up and down, while others shared cheerful embraces and cried tears of joy as Team Georgia defeated North Carolina 29-23 to win gold at the Special Olympics USA Games.
The five-time defending gold medalists of the SOGA Winter Games are now winners at the national level for the very first time.
“They are still in disbelief,” said Young, who has spent the last decade with SOGA. “To come to the USA Games, and to win the gold? That is awesome. And we did it with a small Hall County team.”
The 10-member squad (comprised of Will Crain, Beau Mason, Morgan McNeal, Angel Morales, Nick Nixon, Chris Payne, John Perguson, Luiz Solis, Bahshawn Spencer and Tyler Whitmire) was seeded fourth but went 4-1 in tournament play. It beat Alabama, Pennsylvania and Kentucky in the semifinal before a rematch with Team North Carolina, which defeated Georgia the day before, in the gold medal game.
Young especially revered assistant coaches Matthew McNeal — a Chestatee High graduate and brother of Team Georgia’s Morgan McNeal — and Scott DeGraff of Chestatee for working diligently to condition and scrimmage with the team each week.
“They took the fact they were representing their state as motivation,” the coach said. “We took the challenge and we (made it happen).”
Led by captains Payne and Crain, the resiliency of Hall County manifested against what Young described as a talented team in the final. Crain cited solid team camaraderie as the key for holding on late against opponents from their neighboring state.
After the on-court celebration, friends and family members of players who made the trip from Hall County watched from the bleachers as Team Georgia was presented with gold hardware at the medal ceremony in the following hours.
“It is really huge to bring a gold medal to Georgia,” said Payne, a North Hall High graduate and member of Hall County Traditional for the last six years. “I was crying tears and everything. To bring it home for Georgia, that has been my goal.”
Team Georgia is made up of recent high school graduates and students still enrolled in Hall County schools, with the core group having played together for the last six years, DeGraff said. On top of winning at the state and national level with his teammates, Crain (a Johnson High graduate) won gold for kayaking at the World Special Olympics in 2015.
“The team we brought — we’ve got nine boys and a girl — it’s really one big family. ... We really are,” said DeGraff, who teaches special education at Chestatee and is a 2008 graduate of the school. “We practice twice a week, see each other all the time, go see movies. ... You know, when you see those kids crying after winning their medals, it just makes you realize this is what you do things like this for.”
It truly was an experience of a lifetime for some. DeGraff said this was the first time several of the players had been this far from home, let alone flown on a airplane. Prior to Friday’s closing ceremonies, the team attended a Seattle Mariners baseball game and even had the chance to experience the sights of downtown Seattle.
Since their July 1 arrival, DeGraff said, the city has treated the USA Games athletes like royalty.
With up to four thousand athletes and coaches, 10,000 volunteers and 50,000 projected spectators in attendance, the Special Olympics USA Games was arguably the largest sporting event to hit the Seattle area since 1990, according to the Special Olympics website.
“You walk down the street ... (and) people see the whole Georgia delegation, and they cheer for you,” DeGraff said. “This city rolled out the red carpet for these kids, and they deserve it. They worked their tails off.”
With much of the adrenaline and excitement still flowing 24 hours after winning the title, Team Georgia’s coaches had to remind their athletes how delicate a gold medal really is.
“They ask us every time (we go out), ‘Can we wear our medals?’ And I would say, ‘As much as we really want you to, if you lose it you won’t get another one,’” joked DeGraff.
Indeed, those are a little hard to come by.