After a tough loss at Stroudsburg, most of Pleasant Valley's boys basketball team just needed some silence to cope with the pain of defeat.
Everyone except for Luke Pandolfo, that is.
The Pleasant Valley power forward immediately was ready to discuss adjustments ahead of the team's next game, a Saturday morning trip to Emmaus roughly 36 hours after the Stroudsburg game. Pandolfo had coaching points to go over.
This dedication to improvement has long defined Pandolfo, whose autism makes learning difficult. Easing that challenge, though, is the authentic inclusion Pandolfo has found through sports.
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Pandolfo, a senior, made his first varsity start on Tuesday, as a part of the team's senior night celebration against Pocono Mountain West. Although he's received playing time in several games this season and played in most junior varsity games last year, Pandolfo's presence in the starting lineup induced fervent cheers from the crowd and teammates alike.
"I felt great and nervous," Pandolfo said of taking the court for tip-off.
Pandolfo scored the game's first two points on a layup and played for the first few minutes before returning to the bench. A difficult game against West meant Pandolfo wouldn’t see extended minutes as a starter, though he did return to close out the game's final few minutes.
"This being Luke's (senior) year, that'll be something he'll be able to remember for the rest of his life," Luke's mother Jennifer Pandolfo said.
Diagnosed with autism at age 2, Luke didn't talk as a young child. With therapies inside and outside of school, he began speaking at age 6. After finishing second grade, Luke moved from the special education program into general education classes with support. He's on track to graduate with his peers in June.
Through it all, sports offered Luke a vehicle to communicate with others and develop social skills.
"When he was younger, he was in his own space, his own kind of world, and we were fighting to kind of bring him out into ours," Jennifer said. "Sports was a big part of that."
Luke first joined Pleasant Valley's basketball program for the 2020-21 winter season, but his sports resume extends well beyond varsity hoops.
He had previous varsity experience competing in the shot put on PV's track and field team, as well as competing in as many sports as possible through Special Olympics Pennsylvania, West End Soccer League and summer basketball leagues.
The COVID-19 pandemic paused Special Olympics programs in 2020. Without sports as an outlet, Luke tried turning to karate and art classes to manage what became overflowing anxiety.
Although somewhat helpful, nothing could replace Luke's love of sports.
"It's really the sports that is his passion and that motivates him," Jennifer said.
The Pandolfos turned to PV boys basketball coach Bobby Hahn to see if Luke could join the team for practices. Hahn said he could do them one better.
Hahn taught Luke at Pleasant Valley High School the year before, in his 10th grade World Studies class. He became familiar with Luke's work ethic and positive attitude, so Hahn welcomed Luke aboard.
The experience has been beneficial for everyone involved, Hahn said. Luke's journey has been as much about his growth and maturation as those of his teammates.
Luke brings a work ethic to practice that Hahn said he sees wear off on others. When the team meets for film sessions, Luke brings in a notebook prepared with notes scribbled inside.
Hahn said the senior offers to share notes and observations from the film sessions and help teammates learn plays during practice.
"He's always making sure he's thinking, you know, a step ahead," Hahn said.
When it comes to his own game, Luke will ask for feedback immediately after a game. Rather than hear about what went right, Hahn said Luke wants to know what he can improve upon.
"If you're not doing better, you need to push harder and harder to reach your goals," Luke said. "But don't push too hard."
Jennifer said both Luke's teammates and coaches have made a world of difference for him. Between their patience, kindness and inclusivity, the PV Bears created a space of belonging for Luke.
"They saw his possibilities rather than his limitations or his disability," Jennifer said. "They set the tone for everybody else to treat Luke like that in school."
Frank Piscani is the Sports Life multimedia reporter at the Pocono Record. You can email him at email@example.com or find him on social media platforms @frankpiscani.
This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: Pleasant Valley boys basketball player Luke Pandolfo finds belonging