What began in January with teams from all over the state culminated on Sunday in Frederick County with the Special Olympics Maryland 2016 basketball championship.

Featuring three division levels determined by athletes’ age and skill level, the event was hosted at Hood College’s BB&T Arena and several other school facilities around the county on Saturday and Sunday. And while the weekend’s games would ultimately crown the state champions, most players, including Brunswick native Ryan Webber, simply were excited to hit the court with the close friends they’ve made over the years.

“I’ve grown up here, and I’ve always played with them,” Webber said of his team, the Frederick Heat. “All my friends play with me, so I come back when [my coach] calls me and my friends to play basketball.”

Webber, who has Down syndrome, said he is considering calling it quits after this season, his eighth playing with the Frederick Heat, but he is worried he’ll miss his friends if he doesn’t stay involved in some fashion.

Strengthening the team spirit of the weekend’s tournament was the fact that all of the groups competing Sunday were “unified teams,” featuring athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without, said Special Olympics Maryland spokesman Jason Schriml.

While many of the athletes playing who did not have an intellectual disability were friends or family members of other athletes, the league is open to anyone interested. Andrew Ott, 22, of Frederick, said he got involved with the state’s Special Olympics sports leagues three or four years ago.

“This gives some of the athletes the opportunity to participate in something that maybe they didn’t get the opportunity to do when they were younger,” Ott said. “For me? You know, I was able to do that, but to be able to come out here and still proceed in my athletic career, but to also help those who didn’t have the opportunity that I did? That’s a real blessing.”

Watching a five-on-five game between a squad from the Maryland School for the Deaf and a Frederick Heat team Sunday, Steve Whiting, the area director for Special Olympics Frederick County, said that the team mentality shared by Webber and Ott sets Special Olympics competitions apart from other athletic leagues.

“You don’t get bogged down with that mentality of ‘My son or daughter is going for that scholarship,’ or ‘They’re going for that championship,’” Whiting said. “It’s sport for the sake of sport, so it’s pure. They’re playing because they love it. It’s all team; it’s about each other; it’s about their friendships and all the great things that they do.”

Competitions aren’t limited to a single sport, either. When Webber isn’t working to perfect his 3-pointers, the 33-year-old also plays softball and soccer with the Frederick Heat, he said.

The end goal for many involved with Special Olympics Maryland is to engage as many of the state’s estimated 115,000 residents with intellectual disabilities in as wide an array of sports and other activities as possible, Schriml said. So far, Special Olympics Maryland serves about 7,300 residents with special needs, Schriml said.

“That just means at the end of the day, we have to do more recruitment,” Schriml said with a laugh. “I think if more people knew more of what we do and the breadth of what we do, then we would have more athletes and parents signing up to get involved.”

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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