Local team wins Special Olympics state basketball championship

(Source: WOIO)
(Source: WOIO)

MIDDLEBURG HEIGHTS, OH (WOIO) - As the Cavs continue on their road to another championship, there's another Cleveland area basketball team celebrating a championship. The Midpark Grinders just won the state tournament for Special Olympics.

Mark Thomay coached boys basketball for nearly 20 years at Valley Forge High School in Parma, but this was his first experience with Special Olympics. And listen to how it all fell into place.

The team practices at the Middleburg Heights Rec. Center. Mark exercises there. He would watch the team all the time. One day, he went into the court, got to talking to some folks, and they recruited him to coach. The rest is in the record books.

"We couldn't believe it," says team center Tim Whittington.

Well, believe it. This is Believeland after all. The Midpark Grinders are Special Olympic State Champs.

6 feet 6 inch tall center Tim Whittington was part of the 57 to 46 victory in the championship game in Bowling Green.

"When the buzzer went off, everybody just went nuts."

Coach Mark Thomay says raising that trophy up for the players and their families was an emotional moment.

"I started crying and I'm not a crier. This was just something that came out because it was just a tremendous achievement," says Thomay.

This was Thomay's first year coaching Special Olympics and he admits it was a rough start.

"We lost maybe the first 2 out of 3 games but then we got on a hot streak and they never looked back," says Thomay.

Coach Thomay worked on conditioning and drills and the team responded.

"He's an awesome coach," says Whittington.

"We have a range of disabilities and we have a range of abilities and it was a matter of blending it all together," adds Thomay.

The players range from 14 to 37-years-old and this team was one of only a few in the league to be co-ed.

They've become like family. Moms and dads say they'll be talking about this season for years to come.

"That was great. I mean you just never know when that opportunity is going to come again, so you just enjoy the ride. It was amazing," says parent Ed Zigler.

And Coach Thomay says, sure, he taught the players about basketball, but they taught him about the human spirit.

"No matter what your challenges are physically or mentally, you have that inner drive and it needs to come out in venues like this."

"I'm going to be 60-years-old this summer and I've been through a lot, my career, athletically, professionally and this was one of the most significant achievements of my life," he adds.

There were 46 teams in Ohio vying for this state championship trophy. Their trophy is making the rounds at each of their homes but will eventually end up on display at the Middleburg Height Rec. Center.

The Cavs are sending the team hats and shirts in honor of their big win.

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