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An experience described by one coach as a “life-changer,” the Lompoc High School Project Unify basketball team spent the past week in Seattle as part of the Special Olympics USA Games.

Thanks to a thrilling finish in Friday’s final day of competition, the team was slated to return home with more than just souvenirs.

The Lompoc squad, which was selected by the Special Olympics of Southern California to represent the entire region at the USA Games, captured a 23-22 victory over a team representing Arizona to claim the bronze medal in the event’s scholastic unified basketball tournament. The Lompoc players — five of whom are enrolled in special education classes, with the other five in general education — were each presented with a medal during a ceremony shortly after the final game.

“Being on that stage with all the athletes and partners (the term used for the general education students) was probably one of the greatest moments that I’ve ever experienced,” said Claudia Terrones, the girls’ basketball coach at Lompoc High and one of the coaches for the unified squad.

“It’s a life-changer,” she added. “It’s been very memorable, and probably one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

On the court

The Lompoc/SoCal team went 1-1 over its first two games during pool play at the event, and the team didn’t take its loss in the second game particularly well, Terrones said.

“We were a little down, but we told them that we could still get in there and get a medal,” she said.

After getting knocked out of playing for the gold medal, the team — which has its own page on the Special Olympics USA Games website — bounced back Friday and played its strongest game of the tournament to clinch the bronze medal.

With just about a minute left in that bronze-medal game against Arizona, the two teams were tied.

“It was one of those days where the partners — the players without intellectual disabilities — were moving the ball around so that they set up our kids to be successful,” Terrones said.

In that final minute, one of the partner players made a perfect pass to set up Tyler Rainwater for an open shot that he drained to put the Lompoc/SoCal team ahead by two points with just 56 seconds remaining, Terrones said. The team would never relinquish that lead.

“We were biting our nails for a little while, but this game was their best game of the whole week,” said Elysha Perry, a volunteer manager for the Northern Santa Barbara County Special Olympics, who traveled with the team to Seattle.

“They did amazing and worked great together,” Perry added. “They were pumped up and ready to play, and they definitely represented Lompoc well.”

Terrones said the atmosphere at the University of Washington's Marv Harshman Court only added to the excitement.

“People in the crowd, even the people we played against, they were cheering left and right for everybody,” she said. “We even had cheerleaders. It was just one of those things that you only can dream about.”

Off the court

While basketball was the ultimate purpose of the trip, there were plenty of memories made off the court, according to some of the adults who traveled with the team.

In addition to attending the opening ceremonies on July 1 and the closing ceremonies on Friday evening, the team also did some sightseeing around the Seattle area.

On the Fourth of July, the players and coaches took Seattle’s Link light rail downtown, where they visited the famous Pike Place Market, saw the original Starbucks and enjoyed lunch on a boardwalk.

After competing on Thursday, the team went to Safeco Field and watched as Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners topped the Los Angeles Angels, 4-1.

Perry said the non-basketball excursions helped develop bonds among the students.

“The kids were all close to begin with, but I feel like this brought them a little bit closer,” she said. “It was cool going to things and seeing things that some of them hadn’t gotten to experience in life. For a few of them, this was their first time even on an airplane.”

Back home

The team was planning to catch a Saturday morning flight from Seattle back to Los Angeles, where they were expected to touch down around 3 p.m. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, the players and coaches were set to load up in vans and make their way back to Lompoc High School, where they tentatively planned to arrive around 7 p.m.

Terrones said she was hopeful that members of the community would gather at the school to give the athletes a warm welcome home.

“I’m hoping there’s gonna be a lot of people there to cheer us on, because these guys — it’s just been a great experience,” she said.

As a coach, Terrones didn’t receive a medal. Her daughter, Danielle Morgan, who plays for the Lompoc High girls basketball team, was one of the partner players, however, and was presented with a medal. Terrones said she’s already talked to Danielle about putting her medal in a shadow box with a team photo and some of the pins that the athletes exchanged with players from other states.

“I think I’m gonna put that in my office at the school,” Terrones said.

Although Terrones said she didn’t even know she would be part of the trip until about three weeks before leaving — “They asked and I said yes on a whim … and it was the best yes I’ve ever said,” she said with a laugh — she noted that she is already talking with her husband about attending future Special Olympics events to volunteer.

She encouraged others to do the same.

“For those who have never gone through it, I suggest they go and sign up and help out,” she said, “because this is one of those experiences that you’ll never forget.”

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.