Ron Wheeler, his wife, Lisa, and Suzie Lloyd have been coaching the Cabarrus Crushers, a Special Olympics softball team for 15 years.
All that time, the trio has hoped for the chance to take their team to an out-of-state competition, and this month they finally get to do just that.
The Cabarrus Crushers, consisting of 15 athletes, three coaches and a scorekeeper, will travel to Wichita, Kan., to represent North Carolina in the Special Olympics North America Softball Invitational Tournament on Sept. 24-27.
“It was a shock when we got the phone call,” Lisa Wheeler said. They’ve always wanted to go somewhere, she said, but were never selected in the random drawings that determine who will represent North Carolina at Special Olympics events. “We were just ecstatic.”
Wheeler and Lloyd got to call all the athletes to share the good news. At first, players were a little confused, Wheeler said, because softball season had ended and many of them had moved on to other sports.
“Why are you calling me about softball?” was the reaction Wheeler heard from a lot of team members, but once she and Lloyd explained, they heard lots of screaming and excitement. A few even called back to ask, “Are you sure?”
As soon as the initial excitement faded, the fundraising began. The team’s goal is to raise $8,000 to pay for transportation and meals. They’ve held a variety of fundraisers, but they’re also hoping for donations to help the team get to Wichita.
Both Wheeler and Lloyd are quick to tell you how transforming and rewarding Special Olympics is, for both coaches and athletes.
Lloyd got involved with Special Olympics when she moved here 25 years ago. She’d worked in a group home and grew up playing sports, so Special Olympics is a perfect fit for her passions.
Wheeler started helping her husband and Lloyd with the softball team when her son, Matthew, now 21, began playing. Matthew, who faces intellectual as well as physical challenges, has benefited from Special Olympics.
“It’s changed Matthew,” she said, explaining that he used to be shy and retiring but has become outgoing.
Matthew, the team’s designated hitter, is “very excited” to be going to Kansas. He wants to do his best, hang out with his team, and have fun.
Payton Hitchcock, 20, the only girl on the team, agrees that the best part of the trip will be having fun with her friends and coaches. She says that she’s not nervous, even though her position, second base, is an important one.
“Our main thing is to have fun,” said Suzie Lloyd. “That’s number one. Number two is to have a good attitude.”
It’s obvious that Wheeler and Lloyd are awfully fond of their players, some of whom have been on the team since the beginning. They range in age from 11 to 47 and represent an equally wide range of abilities. But everybody plays, everybody’s special, and as they prepare for Kansas, everybody’s excited.
Marcia Morris is a freelance writer: EasternCabarrusWriter@gmail.com
Want to help?
To make a tax-deductible donation to help the Cabarrus Crushers, send a check to Special Olympics Cabarrus, 7321 Raging Ridge Road, Harrisburg, NC, 28075, or find the Cabarrus Crushers Facebook page for a link to make an online donation.
The Crushers will return to Concord on Sept. 28 and invite their fans to greet them in the Big Lots parking lot on U.S. 29 at approximately 2:45 p.m.