Dan PearsonBy:  J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

On Friday night an underdog Osceola high school basketball team will play Lake Worth in a Class 7A, Region 3 championship game. At stake will be a chance for the Kowboys to advance to their fourth Final Four in the last seven years. And while that feat is impressive, it is important to point only that they are not the only basketball team from Osceola County with state championship aspirations this year.

Starting Thursday, the St. Cloud High School Unified Special Olympics Basketball Team will be headed to Lakeland for the 2022 FHSAA Unified Special Olympics State Championship, where they will play Plant City on Friday at 10 a.m. The Bulldogs qualified for the game by finishing the regular season with a perfect 6-0 record — beating teams from around the state of Florida.

Each Unified Team consists of Special Olympic Athletes who wear even numbers and volunteers from the main student body called partners, who wear odd numbers. Three Special Olympic athletes are on the court at all times with the purpose of the partner players are to help facilitate the game and help the Special Olympic Athletes shine.

St. Cloud Bball
St. Cloud Bball
St. Cloud Bball

Friday’s game will mark the fifth time the St. Cloud team has made it to the state championship round. The team won the state title in their first trip in 2016, finished third in 2018, and was fourth last year. In 2020, they lost to Plant City on a last-second buzzer-beater in the championship game, only to find out afterward that the winner of that game would compete in the USA Special Olympic Games this summer.

“With our fourth-place finish last year, we now have trophies for first through fourth place and we affectionately call it our dinner set,” Head Coach and team founder John Stump joked. “Of course, we are looking forward to trying to win another state title. But putting our successes aside – and even more important to us — is how we have represented ourselves and St. Cloud High School. We have been praised by other players and coaches for maintaining the Special Olympic creed and the spirit of what Unified Basketball represents.”

St. Cloud girls basketball coach Chad Ansbaugh, whose own team made it to the regional finals this year, has a son Braxton who serves as a partner player on the team. The senior has been a volunteer since his freshman year. “I made it a policy that all my kids had to participate in one sport a season,” Chad Ansbaugh said. “Braxton did not really like the structure of high school basketball and asked if volunteering for this program would take care of my ‘requirement.’ Not only did I say yes, I’m incredibly proud that he wanted to join and work with these special athletes.”

The coach added that the program has produced huge benefits for both the athletes and the partners. “Without question, this program helps normalize the relationship between students with intellectual or developmental disabilities and the rest of the student population,” Chad Ansbaugh said. “This program not only gives them access to sports but helps them blend in with all students.”

When the program began in 2015, Stump was approached by St. Cloud principal Nate Fancher about organizing the basketball program. It’s something that he says he gets as much out of as the students that participate. “The main thing I love about it is breaks down barriers and stereotypes. It opens the eyes of everyone that anything is possible,” Stump said.