Learning fundamentals of basketball and how to play as a team has paid off big for a Pickerington Special Olympics team, which has qualified for the state basketball tournament semifinals for the first time in the program's history.

By everyone's account -- from coach Bryon Beresford, to players and their parents -- the Pickerington Jaguars have improved by leaps and bounds the past two seasons.

The progress correlates with Beresford's involvement in the program, which has 26 male players, ages 12 to 29, competing on three teams of varying proficiency, starting with the Gray "skills" team, followed by the Black "skills-plus" team and the Purple "tournament" team.

On Feb. 1, the Purple team won the Central/Southeastern Regional Championship, advancing to the state tournament to be played Feb. 22 and 23 in Bowling Green.

"We entered regional play on Saturday, Jan. 18, with a 3-3 record with all losses coming against opponents in higher divisions," Beresford said.

"We were able to win our first two regional games by an average of 24 points.

"In the regional championship, we defeated the Columbus Comets by a score of 51-25 to advance to the state final four. The three tournament games have been the best three games our boys have ever played."

Making strides

Before Beresford took over as coach of the Black and Purple teams in the 2018-19 season, parents said, the teams often stood around or ran somewhat helter-skelter up and down the court.

They didn't always grasp the importance of passing the ball to unguarded teammates, that one could create a better shot opportunity for a teammate when the ball was moved from teammate to teammate in crisp succession, or how to play a zone defense where each man is responsible for covering certain areas of the floor -- all with both hands up to deflect and deter passes and shots from opponents.

"It's phenomenal," said Stacy Miller, who's 23-year-old son, Zachary, is one of the 10 players on the Purple team. "It's all thanks to our coach.

"He came on last year and he had a lot of work to do," Miller said of Beresford. The kids tried, but I don't think they understood some of the drills or what he was trying to teach them."

Miller, and other parents of Purple team players, said Beresford broke down elements of the game for players.

Beresford occasionally raises his voice to drive home messages, but parents said he does so respectfully and purely to motivate the players and help them learn. At the same time, he lets them offer their opinions and ask questions.

"I think it makes them feel that they're real basketball players," said Ronald Browder, whose 23-year-old son, Michael, has played Special Olympics basketball and other sports since age 8. "Coach Beresford has just done a wonderful job with these boys.

"When they first came together as a team, they struggled. He's really been able to get them into a cohesive unit that functions as a team."

'High character'

After hesitating to compose himself after being momentarily silenced by his emotions, Beresford immediately responded, "high character" when asked to name the team's greatest attribute.

"They play for each other and they work with each other," Beresford said. "They show great sportsmanship and they never complain.

"Whatever we ask of them, they do it."

Several players said getting out and running on fast breaks and shooting were among their favorite aspects of basketball; however, nearly every player talked about working together to get the ball moving and into the hands of an unguarded player and staying focused on their offensive and defensive assignments so the team, as a whole, could operate at its highest level.

"I just like playing and being teammates and passing the ball to everybody," said Nick Moore, 29. "I like trying to get the ball to everyone so they can shoot the ball.

"I like shooting it, too, but I like to pass it."

Bryndan Jones, 23, said he considers himself fortunate to play basketball for the Purple team, adding he strives to play his hardest to help his teammates and the team succeed.

"There've been ups and downs," said Jones, who's been playing in the program for 10 years. "We had to keep working harder and harder.

"It's a blessing from God just playing with these guys. These guys are my friends, and I want to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ."

Beresford said seeing his players share the basketball, pick each other up when someone hits the floor and continually encouraging each other inspires him.

He said a photo he recently saw that exhibited both teamwork and development has been the highlight of a season full of them.

"We have a picture that one of the parents posted on Saturday (Feb. 1), and it was all five guys in their zone (defense) with their hands up," Beresford said. "That was probably the best picture.

"I didn't have to tell them. They're all in their positions with their hands up."

Beresford said he's also proud that players and parents have bought in to building the program.

"I think of us now as a basketball family," he said. "I love these players and would do anything for them, and I seem to get positive responses from all the players and families involved."

Shaky start

Although everyone -- from Bereford to players and parents -- are excited to travel to Bowling Green for the state tournment, it almost never happened, and that close call had nothing to do with on-court performance.

Beresford, believed this season he had a team that could make a run at the state tournament, but he was unaware the state Special Olympics rules changed, requiring all teams to have played at least three certified games by Dec. 4.

That was a problem for the Purple team. They didn't start practice until Nov. 7.

"We scrambled for whoever we could play," Beresford said. "We took some lumps early, but it made us a lot better.

"The support we get now, from the schools to Facebook and the community and everything, we probably had 300 people travel with us to Athens to watch the regional championship."

Shaping lives

Whereas the current focus for Beresford and his basketball players is their quest for the state title, several parents pointed out how significant not only basketball, but Special Olympics as a whole, has been to their children and families.

Pickerington's 30-year-old program has grown over the years, and nearly all the Purple team members have played a variety of sports since they were 8.

"It's helped my son become very outgoing," said Terri Hunaker, whose 18-year-old son, Nathan, is a member of the Purple team and a manager for the Pickerington High School North basketball team. "He doesn't know a stranger.

"It's been a good experience. It's gotten him more involved with 'typical' kids."

Denise Watts said Special Olympics has been one of the most important parts of her 23-year-old son Zach's life since elementary school.

"There's definitely nothing he's going to miss," Watts said. "He schedules things around his practices.

"Basketball and track are his favorites. I think they feel the most competitive to him."

Like other parents of Purple team players, Watts said Special Olympics has nurtured her son's love of sports and also helped him develop socially and to mature.

"He's also formed great friendships with the guys on the team," she said. "They spend time together outside Special Olympics. They see movies, go to dinner, go to one another's houses and go to sporting events together.

"They've just built great friendships."

Beresford said not many people in the community outside of the program talked about Pickerington Special Olympics when he took over as coach.

He's since worked to promote the program via Facebook and local events, and the community has responded.

In addition to the crowd that traveled to Athens for the regional game, local businesses and individuals donated about $5,000 during the past two years to outfit the team with uniforms and shooting shirts they wear during pregame warmups.

Miller said players are getting recognized at their jobs or when they are out in the community, and that bolsters players' confidence and families' spirits.

"It just makes them feel incredible," Miller said.

"Our coach has done a great job of getting the word out about Special Olympics in our community," she said.

"Unless you participate in a basis that we all do, nobody can understand the importance of it.

"It's almost, like, contagious after they see the happiness it brings.

State semifinals

The Purple team is guaranteed two games at the state tournent.

The Jagaurs will play a semifinal againt the Hamilton County Raptors on court 1 at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Student Recreation Center.

The consolation game is 10:30 a.m. Feb. 23 and the final is noon.

"I'm just really proud of my team," Moore said. "We all came together to become a better team and work on things.

"I'm just ready to play in the final four because, I think, if we play like we have been, I think we can win."

Beresford agreed.

He said it's been a season-long goal to win the state championship, and he's eager to see how his team responds to the big stage.

"Our goal is to win the state championship," Beresford said. "I truly believe we are capable of doing that if we play our best.

"But regardless of the outcome, these kids are all already winners with their effort and accomplishments this season."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate