The 13 people who make up Westerville's Special Olympics volleyball team have been playing together for years, and coach Kathy Ullom said the team continues to improve while facing harder and harder schedules.

The 13 people who make up Westerville's Special Olympics volleyball team have been playing together for years, and coach Kathy Ullom said the team continues to improve while facing harder and harder schedules.

The team placed second at this year's state tournament in June.

"We've had some tournaments where we've had to play against some really tough people because our record last year was great," Ullom said. "(The team) works equally hard regardless of who we're playing. When we play people who are better than we are, we play better."

Ullom, who has coached the team for the last four years, said the team plays together from February through the state tournament at the end of June.

Most of the players have been with the team for some time, save five who joined just this year.

The players range in age from 17 to 33, and because the team competes in the unified division, it includes both Special Olympics athletes and volunteer "helpers" who play side by side.

"Every other person on the team is an athlete and every other person on the team is a partner," Ullom said.

She said the concept helps accommodate the varying levels of ability represented on the team.

All of the team's members have improved within the last year, Ullom said, thanks to a partnership with Otterbein University's volleyball team. Otterbein's team practiced with the Special Olympics athletes and helped them hone their skills.

"They just embraced us like you wouldn't believe. They just took these kids under their wings and worked with us," Ullom said. "It's been really neat, just kind of seeing the kids so welcomed there. Some of the kids started Facebooking with the Otterbein students."

The partnership also has helped the Otterbein team, Ullom said, by showing the team members what people with special needs can accomplish.

"It brings, I think, an awareness, and it kind of changes the attitude that people have about Special Olympic athletes," Ullom said. "There was just a very mutual respect right from the get-go. Not everyone would know what to expect from having special Olympic athletes come to work with them."

Ullom said her team demonstrated that Special Olympics athletes are like any others, working to maximize and improve their skills.

"They have just as much of a drive and just as much of a work ethic as every other athlete," she said. "The outcome might be different, but the work ethic is just the same."

The winning season has been a boost for the athletes, Ullom said, but she said while winning is nice, it's not the most important thing to Special Olympics athletes.

"Our goal is that we just want these athletes to feel as successful as we possibly can. There's all different physical and mental disabilities that we have, but we find those skills that they have, and those are the ones that we concentrate on," Ullom said. "When we win, everyone is feeling like everyone contributed to it. That's really what I try to focus on: Everyone being successful and everyone contributing to the team."