Thursday, March 23, 2023

Special Olympics Maryland Basketball: The Best Program Around

Group photo after the 2022 State Basketball Tournament,
held on the University of Maryland campus. photo/Laurence Levin
Special Olympics Maryland provides athletes with intellectual disabilities to participate in a myriad of athletic competition year-round. One of the programs, basketball, has the largest number of athletes that participate throughout the state on almost every weekend in February and March culminating with the State Championship Games at the end of the season. To operate a successful program requires dedicated people to ascribe to what Eunice Shriver envisioned in 1968. From the CEO of SOMD to all the volunteers the common goal is to that make each event ‘special’ to all the athletes. In the hierarchal structure of SOMD, Melissa Anger has the responsibility to organize each qualifier event as well as assembling all the people to make the State games operate smoothly. 
Game action from the 2022 Tournament
photo/Laurence Levin

Melissa started with SOMD in 2010 as a volunteer while she was attending Central Methodist University in Missouri. A few years later, she was hired as a staff member of SOMD and two years later in 2015 took over the basketball program from her predecessor, Mike Czarnowsky. At that time there were approximately 80 basketball teams comprising of Unified and Traditional 5v5 teams and 3v3 teams. In 2020, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there were 104 teams with over 1000 athletes. An innovative step during just prior to her tenure put was expanded to its current level of participation was the introduction of Player Development Unified at the 5v5 and 3v3 levels. This includes on court mentors (2 for the 5v5 teams and 1 for the 3v3 teams) who are restricted in participating in the game except to coach the players on the court. This has proven as a transitional step to help “teach” the game to the athletes and to move athletes from one level to the next level. Maryland is as one of the few states in the Special Olympics basketball to offer additional opportunities for as many athletes who otherwise may not have participated in any sport. Another accomplishment of SOMD basketball is that they have sent a number of teams to the USA National Games, many returning with medals earned at these competitions. 


So, what does a typical season look like for the basketball program. Melissa, as the head of the Sports Management Team, holds a Pre-Season Webinar in the beginning of December with coaches and Area Program directors to have everyone on the same page. Many teams start their practices and Program directors representing each county in Maryland begin their team assessments in December (approx.) and practices continue in January. During the season, the Area Programs will host qualifiers with teams required to attend a minimum of 3 qualifiers throughout the season to be eligible for the State Tournament at the end of March. Typically in each qualifier, teams will play 2-3 games which helps in assessing each team to be placed in the appropriate division in the State Tournament. 


The State Games are held over two days. The 5v5 Traditional and Unified teams play on Saturday and the Individual Skills, 3v3 teams and 5v5 PDU teams on Sunday. Teams are divisioned based on season results from all the Qualifiers they competed in. These parameters are used to ensure “equal/compatible competition”. All teams must attend the Required Qualifier and two local qualifiers to be eligible to participate in the State Tournament. Each Program Area operates their on-court practices to their own schedules which includes practice time, intrasquad play, or league play. 

Photos/Kathy Awkard

There are a number of people who make things happen for SOMD basketball. Teams need coaches, all who are volunteers. All coaches are required to meet certain qualifications to coach. They must submit the proper paperwork and take specific courses- one being a Basketball Specific Coaches Training. Athletes and Partners must complete a minimum of 8 weeks of basketball training/practices. At every event, scorekeepers and timers are essential for a seamless event. All of our scorekeepers/timers are volunteers that are recruited by the local programs for qualifiers. For the State Tournament, our Director of Volunteers, Sam Boyd, does an amazing job recruiting the volunteers. As for the venues, SOMD uses various sites around the state of Maryland throughout the season. These range from elementary schools to college courts. We had one Qualifier at St. Mary’s College and the State Games at the Xfinity Center on the campus of the University of Maryland. And yes, games were held on the main court where UMD’s men and women teams play. 


At each event, teams have specific instructions to follow. All teams must be in proper basketball attire and dressed in the team’s uniform.. All uniforms for a team must meet the Student guidelines or they cannot participate. No one can participate if they are in jeans, khakis, boots, or anything that is deemed inappropriate or does not meet NFHS (National Federation of High School) standards. In addition, lunches are provided to all teams at our State Tournament. In the past, these have been donated by Sheetz.


In Melissa’s words, “I can’t say enough about our amazing referees! Without them, we wouldn’t have the high-quality events that we do. They are all truly amazing people that deeply care about our athletes and ensuring they have a great experience! Our Head Official, Keith Lampel, recruits all of the referees for all the 20+ qualifiers and the State Tournament that we have each year. Each qualifier ranges in number of teams, courts and level of play. The State Tournament is an all-weekend event with 5v5 play on Day 1 and 3v3 and 5v5PDU play on Day 2. All of our referees are volunteers, and we couldn’t be luckier to have them as part of the Special Olympics Maryland family!”

From the 2017 games l-r Joe Mitchell, Pete Pannell,
Bill Dixon, Keith Lampel, Larry Levin, Andy Robillard,  
(Andy is a Special Olympics Athlete and Referee)

The complexity of organizing events for SOMD is an everyday challenge, but there are other goals of SOMD, and specifically the basketball program, to increase the number of athletes state-wide. Melissa acknowledges that growing a sport isn’t an easy task. In order to do so she works closely with the local Area Programs to recruit more athletes to their program and she provides whatever resources to each Area as needed. In essence, the more teams SOMD has, the better competition we have for all involved!

We asked Melissa additional questions to gain a better insight on what she does for SOMD basketball program and all the athletes that compete at all levels.  

1.     How do you involve the community, schools, parents, friends?

a.     Anyone can be a unified partner, volunteer or coach. Almost every County in Maryland has at least 1 basketball team, so the possibilities are endless! When we host local qualifiers, we typically try and get students/teams from those schools as volunteers if possible to get them involved. I have also worked with different colleges to host coach trainings where the basketball coach is the trainer and the players are participating and demonstrating different drills and answers our coaches questions. We are always looking to grow our SOMD Basketball partners!

2.     How do you develop participation?

a.     Participation is always a concern. We want to ensure all teams have equal/compatible competition. I work very closely with the Area Programs and Coaches to help determine levels of play, teams when needed and anything else they may need. I tend to have a hands-on approach to the sports I oversee and make sure all my coaches know that I am here to help in any way that I can.

3.     Sponsors, how do you secure and involve sponsors?

a.     I work with our Development team to get sponsors. They do an amazing job getting donations from sponsors for all of our events!

Game action 2022 State Basketball Tournament at University of Maryland.
photo/Laurence Levin

4.     What costs are involved and how are the costs covered?

a.     The biggest cost involved with our sports are facility costs. There are some facilities that donate the gym time to us at no cost, but there are others that charge us a discounted rate- it is a business! For the State Tournament, all costs are worked out in the budget the year prior. SOMD hosts several fundraisers year-round to cover all the costs so that the athletes and partners don’t have to pay a thing. The Polar Bear Plunge is our biggest fundraiser each year. 

5.     Any special activities?

a.     I love working with colleges to put on Basketball Clinics for our athletes. I think it is a great time for both our athletes and the college coaches and players! Currently, I have relationships with Washington College Women’s Basketball, Navy Women’s Basketball and the University of Maryland Men’s Basketball teams to host Basketball clinics for our athletes. These clinics allow the college teams to work on different skills with the SOMD athletes and then they have the opportunity to play in some mini games. These games give our athletes a chance to be on the team with some of the players they watch on the court all the time- it’s an amazing experience for all involved!

2017 basketball clinic with University of Maryland Basketball Team.
photo/Laurence Levin

b.     Besides the clinics, over the years, I have been working with other colleges to get the SOMD Basketball teams more visibility. Each year, Towson University invites teams to multiple games where the teams get to play at halftime. This is a great opportunity to have the fans see what kind of athletes we have and their skills! I have done this with Notre Dame of Maryland University and George Washington University, as well. 

c.     My goal is to get clinics, halftime games or anything else with multiple colleges each year! The more we can do this, the exposure SOMD athletes get to show their skills! Maryland has so many colleges, so going all around the state showing off their skills is what I want to do.

6.     Things you want to improve?

a.     There are always things I want to improve. I am always looking to improve any aspect of the season. A few years ago, I created a Divisioning Night that allows selected coaches to come to the SOMD office and help create the Final Divisions for the State Tournament. This gives coaches and volunteers an opportunity to get involved and improve the Divisioning process. There is a lot of discussion amongst the coaches- it’s a great collaboration! Along with the Divisioning Night, I created a Competition Assessment Form that allows coaches to evaluate the competition at the local qualifiers. I take their input on the match-ups and bring it to the Divisioning Nights so their voices are heard even if they aren’t there. I want to ensure we have the best match-ups for every game the teams play!

photos/Kathy Awkard

7.     Are there any challenges you want to discuss?

a.     The biggest challenge we still face today is that some outside people don’t see Special Olympics as a competitive sports organization. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have a new volunteer watching some of the games and get blown away by the skill level of our teams. Some of our top level teams would beat some varsity basketball teams! I want people to realize that we have athletes and partners with all different skill levels from beginner to advanced! With some of our unified teams, you can’t tell who the athletes are and who the partners are and it’s amazing! They are all equal teammates with the same responsibilities on the team. Special Olympics isn’t a field day in an open field or just a track meet anymore- SOMD offers 27 competitive sports year-round with athletes of all ability level! I want to help show the world how amazing these athletes are!  

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