Spirit of success: Silver Creek honored as National Banner School

OBSERVER Photos by Braden Carmen Silver Creek-Forestville Black Knights Unified Basketball coach Jen Johnson, far left, and her team posed for a photo at center court with Fredonia Hillbillies Unified Basketball coach Carol Zirkle, far right, and her team on Monday after an assembly game at Silver Creek High School.

SILVER CREEK — Monday at Silver Creek the entire school came together to celebrate the District’s most deserving athletes.

At halftime of a Unified basketball assembly game between the Fredonia Hillbillies and the Silver Creek-Forestville Black Knights, Special Olympics of New York State recognized the Silver Creek Central School District as a National Banner School for its efforts with Unified sports.

“Today was electric, having the entire school here to witness how wonderful it feels to be a part of this team,” Black Knights head coach Jen Johnson said. “… The last three years being involved in this has been very special to me.”

The ceremony was held to recognize Silver Creek as just the second school in Chautauqua County to earn National Unified Champion School status, joining Dunkirk High School, which received its award earlier this year. Like Dunkirk did in front of a packed house for a Dunkirk-Fredonia boys basketball game, Silver Creek had the stands full for the breakout game, held during the school day as an assembly for all high school students to witness.

“I got teary eyed. I got emotional when that banner was revealed,” Johnson said. “… but I had to keep it together, I had another half to coach.”

Silver Creek-Forestville Unified Basketball athletes David Barrett, Jon Pilski, Colin Shumaker, and Julie Decker unveiled the National Unified Champion School banner on Monday during halftime of a game against Fredonia.

At halftime, Janet Decker, a Middle School Special Education Teacher at Silver Creek, addressed the crowd before she and the Unified athletes and coaches unveiled the Special Olympics Unified Sports Banner.

“(Decker) is definitely the leader. She has a way to show everybody what Unified is all about. People want to be inclusive, they want to be a part of this wonderful experience, they want to help others feel good,” Johnson said.

Decker, a finalist for the Readers Digest contest to name America’s Favorite Teacher, is also the District’s Unified Bowling Coach and the adviser for the Youth Advisory Committee. She was commended along with her fellow coaches and the District’s athletes by Michael Paglicci, Director of Programming for Special Olympics New York, Western Region.

Paglicci highlighted the benefit to an assembly game giving students the opportunity to experience Unified sports in a setting where they are not otherwise occupied or limited from its exposure. Paglicci said the assembly setting “bridges the gap” to share the experience with everyone.

“Assembly games break down that excuse of, ‘I just can’t make it.’ No, you should be here. You should see the success that we have here on the court,” Paglicci said.

OBSERVER Photos by Braden Carmen Fredonia’s Elijah Schrantz celebrates after making a shot during Monday’s Unified basketball game against Silver Creek-Forestville, in Silver Creek.

Both teams got to show off plenty of success on Monday.

Prior to the halftime celebration, the Hillbillies built upon an 8-6 lead after one quarter to take a 20-12 lead to the break. Six Fredonia players registered a bucket in the first half: Julian Ocasio, Elijah Schrantz, Diego Brielo, Luke McKnatt, Austin Duliba, and Raylee Flanders.

“We were hitting shots. … It’s easy to build a lead if you’re making your shots,” said Fredonia head coach Carol Zirkle. “We have people who know how to get the ball to players who are open.”

The Hillbillies extended their lead to 36-18 after three quarters, but when it came time to close it out, the Black Knights would not go quietly. Behind 10 points in the fourth quarter from Jon Pilski, the Black Knights pulled to within six, 38-32, in the final minute of play. Fredonia, however, did manage to hold on to its sizable lead to escape Silver Creek with a victory.

Pilski led the Black Knights with 18 points on Monday. Also putting their names in the scorebook were Troy Cooper, Jake Schwab, Sabra Warner, Levi Lawton, and Colin Shumaker.

Silver Creek’s Troy Cooper smiles after taking a shot during Monday’s Unified basketball game against Fredonia.

But every bit as important as the points scored on Monday were the celebrations, as the packed gym erupted to celebrate big shots throughout the afternoon. The experience had a lasting impact on the players on the floor.

“I just like giving joy to people that don’t usually get (the spotlight) … I just try to make everyone as happy as possible,” said Black Knights senior David Barrett.

A varsity athlete in multiple sports and a basketball player since seventh grade, Barrett wanted to join Unified basketball for his senior year to play alongside his friend, Christopher Marsh, who is a Special Olympics athlete. Barrett said of the decision to join, “Why not do it with him to have fun?”

Johnson credited her team’s rebounding on Monday, along with an improvement in using the backboard and other fundamentals. “I was so impressed with how my kids were hustling today,” Johnson said.

Fredonia was led by Schrantz with 10 points, while McKnatt, Duliba, and Flanders each had six points.

“I was so nervous coaching. You walk in and you have hundreds of people here. It’s different than coaching at night,” Zirkle said.

The win for Zirkle’s Hillbillies stung a bit more because of family ties, as Johnson grew up rivals with the Zirkle family. Losing to a Zirkle was the one blemish on an otherwise shining day for Johnson and the Black Knights.

“Everybody cheered for everybody. Everybody had a wonderful time. We all left with smiles,” Johnson said. “… It was a wonderful experience.”

Zirkle highlighted the experience overall, rather than her team’s victory.

“You don’t understand until you see a game like this. For the student body to see this, it’s so important for them to understand the capabilities that everyone has, and how we can work together to celebrate everyone,” Zirkle said. “We’re trying to bring people together to celebrate what people can do.”


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