WILDWOOD – The Cape May Cougars, the county’s Special Olympics basketball team, was awarded silver medals by local law enforcement in the state season finals March 25. 

The team of 10 athletes of varying abilities who range in age from 21-65 came in second to the Warren Stealers in their four-team division.

It was the second time in the decade since the Cougars were established that the team advanced to the Spring Games, the culmination of Special Olympics New Jersey’s basketball season held annually in the Wildwoods. This year was the first time they placed.

“We may be a small-town team, but we kept believing,” said Cougars coach Rose Kuprianov, who credited their success to starting practice as early as September. “It was a fair competition.”

There were 450 athletes on 55 teams from all over the state who competed in the 16th Spring Games. They played on courts at Byrne Community Center, Crest Pier, North Wildwood Community Center, Wildwood Catholic, Wildwood High School, and the Wildwoods Convention Center.

“That convention center, everybody there treated the athletes like royalty,” Kuprianov said.

The year’s games mark the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics New Jersey.

“It is our very own March Madness,” stated Heather Andersen, president of Special Olympics New Jersey.

Throughout the season, teams play in one of four regional divisions – either East, North, South, or Central Sectional League – and the top two teams from each division progress to the Spring Games.

At the tournament, each team gets placed into one of 14 divisions that have different tactical and dribbling rules.

“We division the teams to make sure that every team is able to compete against someone around their same play and level of competition,” said Brooke Chlebowski, site coordinator of the East Sectional League.

Chris Sepsey, 14, of the Bankbridge Nighthawks, came to Wildwood from West Deptford to play for his fourth year.

“All the players are nice, everybody’s doing great,” he said.

Sepsey said he likes basketball because it helps him with motor control by challenging him to use his left hand, which is not as strong as his right.

The Cape May Cougars practiced every week in preparation for the season, Kuprianov said. They trained in the Special Services School gymnasium because the team didn’t have the “luxury” of their own gym.

Kuprianov said the games were “not cutthroat” and the teams the Cougars competed against – the Stealers, Bancroft Red Storm, and PA Leprechauns – showed “good sportsmanship.”

A “cute” moment from the Cougars-Red Storm game was when one of the Bancroft athletes nicknamed 65-year-old Wayne Taylor of the Cougars “Grandpa,” Kuprianov said.

“He’s fast, he can steal the ball,” she said of Taylor. “He’s really a good shooter, too.”

The Cougars and Red Storm bonded on and off the court. And members of the teams made friends with one another, Kuprianov said.

“I’ve never seen a team like them, they are like family,” she said of Red Storm. The tournament was “everything I was looking for in Special Olympics.”

To contact Taylor Henry, email thenry@cmcherald.com.