A week after half of Special Olympics Southern California’s teams opened the floor hockey season, teams split and competed in a pair of competitions almost 200 miles apart in the first full weekend on Saturday.
In Orange County, 109 athletes from eight teams that represented four regions took the floor at The RINKS in Huntington Beach, Calif. In addition to the athletes, roughly 500 coaches, volunteers, family members and fans provided an uplifting spark to a day that was highlighted by firsts.
Making their first competition appearance was the Orange County Storm, a northern Orange County team that was formed thanks in large part to floor hockey moving to its own season and creating a need due to demand by athletes from a previously underserved area.
The result was a busy day for head coach Megan Prell and a memorable one for its athletes.
“Great experience. Only a few practices before today, so to be able to come out here and be on a rink first the time was pretty exciting to the players. Our goalie was brand new in goal, brand new in the pads, and he was a rock star. We call him Gibson (his real name is Aaron Heckathorn).”
Then came the competition itself, where Megan spent every pause in the action to walk out on to the rink to encourage Aaron. Then all the hard work paid off with his first save. The large crowd sensed the moment and there was a celebration to be sure. Several minutes later, the Storm’s Joshua Arroyo scored their first goal, which included a leap in the air and many high-fives and hugs.
“Our players just getting used to the equipment and teaching them how to put it on and to encourage them to be the independent individuals they are, has been a cool thing to watch develop. And just watch them to develop as a team, to watch them work together and to talk to each other has been an incredible thing. A lot of them were pretty nervous, but we got that first save and then got that first goal, and that provided a big boost for them.”
Adding a spark to the environment was the Aliso Niguel lacrosse team. First-year head coach Zach Henderson is big on his team being a part of the community, so he signed up both the varsity and junior varsity teams as volunteers.
“It is such an amazing opportunity for our team to be part of this community,” said Henderson. “We as a team have to give back, and this is such an amazing experience to be a part of.”
It was the first time anyone on the team volunteered at a Special Olympics event, and they weren’t disappointed.
They arrived before anyone else to help with set-up and then packed the stands with green shirts as they cheered every match.
“If I wasn’t graduating next year, I’d would want us to come back next year,” said team captain JD Tschopp. “They should come back. The players are so talented and it so fun to watch their energy. This was an amazing experience to be a part of. I hope to do it again some how.”
Tschopp and his teammates were rewarded throughout the day as the competition provided electric moments, including a classic in game four between San Diego County’s El Cajon Gulls and hometown host the Laguna Hills Hawks from Orange County. Trailing 2-1 with little more than a minute to play, the Gulls scored twice in that final time span to earning a thrilling 3-2 win.
Competition, Respect Run High in Santa Maria
Meanwhile, up the Central Coast, nine teams from as close as Santa Maria and as far as Santa Clarita made their way to the Santa Maria Fairparks Convention Center to battle in three divisions.
It was a big day for the co-host Northern Santa Barbara Ducks, who claimed the gold medal in the green division. The Ducks scored 23 goals over two games.
Yndira Amavisca watched her son Elias not only perform and win the gold, but he was also one of three athletes part of the Opening Ceremonies that included the pledge of allegiance, national anthem and athlete oath.
After nearly a decade of involvement, Yndira has watched her 17-year-old son gain friendships both in and outside of the community. Whether it’s floor hockey, basketball, softball or soccer season, the relationships mean as much as the results for Elias and his family.
“When we gather at tournaments like this, even though they don’t see each other that often they remember and high-five each other — regardless of who wins. It’s competitive, but they all cheer each other on,” said Yndira, who has also volunteered and coached along with her husband.
Also winning gold medals were the Bakersfield Thunder from Kern County (red division) and co-hosts the Lompoc Braves from Northern Santa Barbara (blue division).
David Deramus, 31, of Bakersfield enjoys the sheer competition, but it’s just as important to him that sportsmanship never gets compromised.
“It’s fun,” he said. “[It’s about] respect for others, respecting yourself.”