Apr. 23—It was a day of smiles, hugs, and celebrations.
After having the season cut short due to COVID-19, Stuart Public Schools honored its Special Olympics team with championship rings during a ceremony in front of the entire student body on Friday after the team of bowlers were named as one of the top in the state.
Although they didn't get the opportunity to compete at nationals, coaches LaDonna Bunch and Denise Russell said they were extremely proud of their students, who put in a lot of hard work to earn the outstanding achievement.
"They did amazing," Bunch said. "They had never bowled before, and by the time we got to the winter games last year, they qualified for state."
"They're a joy," Russell added. "They bring us lots of joy here to the school."
The path to the milestone began with a dream, as the newly-formed team had a lot to learn before they could get to competition.
"We took some training ourselves," Russell said. "But I'm telling you right now, we had five mentors — we could not have done it without these kids."
Five student mentors became partners to the Hornet bowlers. The pairs consisted of Weston Reed and Ryan McNully, Payton Bennett and Dylan Sanford, Natalie Hutchings and Dylan McPhetridge, Skylar Hutchings and Hunter Brown, and Garrett Caywood and Brayden Kerns.
They've been with them every step of the way, building both strong games in the lanes and lasting memories.
"They have been by their sides helping them the whole time," Russell said. "They high five them, they praise them. If they did bad, or if they did good, they're always praising them."
McNully, a senior at Stuart, said getting to be one of the mentors to the Special Olympics team was something he will never forget.
"It was a great, great organization to be a part of," McNully said. "Step by step, going into it — I wouldn't take it back. I enjoyed it very much."
The surprise ceremony was a welcome sight to the team, as Bunch said they were quick to express their happiness at being honored in front of the entire school.
"A couple of them were about to cry," Bunch said. "One child today told me 'we're making memories.'"
Bunch said one athlete, Reed, even said his dream came true that afternoon.
"He beat his partner in bowling," Bunch said. "I told (McNully) that was the best moment ever because he did his job. He took a kid that didn't know how to hold a ball and now look at him."
McNully humbly said that achievement wasn't so much about the individual as it was about the team, and he's proud of the success they achieved together. And it'll be an experience that he'll hold on to forever.
"The kids, the memories," McNully said. "You just can't take them for granted, every single second of it."
Contact Derek Hatridge at email@example.com.