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Kevin ackison coached a middle-school girls basketball team with the kokomo school corporation for years, where he gained a reputation as a solid, passionate instructor dedicated to the team.

But when he walked into a gym 11 years ago to start coaching the girls basketball team with the howard county special olympics, ackison was intimidated.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into that first year,” he said. “going into a gym and seeing a bunch of handicapped kids is overwhelming – seeing kids with helmets and other disabilities. I knew how to coach basketball, but I was scared coaching these girls.”

Sondra prather looks for a pass over shantina holiday as the howard county special olympics girls basketball team practices on tuesday, march 6, 2018.Kelly lafferty gerber kelly lafferty gerber | kokomo tribune kelly lafferty gerber

“I started treating them like they were my kids, and it made it easy,” he said.

“they’re regular kids, and that’s the way I coach them – like they’re regular girls. I think they respect that.”

Now, ackison has spent the last decade building the team into a top-notch basketball program that’s become the most winning special olympics club in howard county. In 10 years, they’ve won the state championship eight times and remained undefeated during most of those seasons.

On tuesday evening, ackison met up with his players inside the gym at elwood haynes elementary school for their last practice before the tournament. The 12-girl squad started off practice with some stretches before ackison began non-stop drills running through drippling, passing, layups and block-outs.Kelly lafferty

The howard county special olympics girls basketball team practices blocking out on tuesday, march 6, 2018, for their upcoming state finals game. Kelly lafferty gerber | kokomo tribune kelly lafferty gerber

Ackison said after getting his bearings that first year on how to teach the game to girls with autism, down syndrome, developmental disorders and other special needs, he discovered he didn’t have to change his coaching style at all.

“my philosophy didn’t change from coaching the girls at the kokomo school system to coaching these girls,” he said. “play hard. Play good defense. And just have fun. I coach them normal, and they know what to do.”

That philosophy has paid off. When ackison took over coaching the team, he had to go out and recruit girls just to have enough players to take the court.Kelly lafferty gerber this year, he actually had to hold tryouts and cut a couple of girls because they didn’t have enough jerseys.

Brooke sawyer, a 27-year-old who has played on the team for more than a decade, said working with ackison has been a great experience. Since he’s taken over, all the girls have sharpened their game and become a tight-knit group.

Sawyer said the team is working hard to take home a ninth state championship win this weekend. She’s already racked up eight gold medals from the group’s previous wins. Now, she hopes to add another one to her collection, which she has on display in her bedroom.

The howard county special olympics girls basketball team practices on tuesday, march 6, 2018, for their upcoming state finals game. Kelly lafferty gerber | kokomo tribune kelly lafferty gerber

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But for cheryl guyer, whose daughter, madison, plays in the program, winning the tournament would just be icing on the cake. She said her daughter has already won a victory just by playing on the team.

“it’s one big family,” guyer said. “it’s a place where they can come where everyone is the same. Nobody is better than anybody else. We’re all playing the same game. That’s what special olympics is all about.”

Ackison agreed. He said his team plays to compete, but that isn’t what keeps him coming back year after year to coach. For him, it’s all about the players.

“I do it for them,” he said. “I yell at them and tease them and have a good time. I want to have fun and I know they want to have fun, and that’s the biggest thing.”

That’s why it didn’t matter after the program stopped paying him to coach after the first year.Lafferty gerber when he joined on, ackison received a small stipend for the gig, but that ended after the first season. His response?

By that time, ackison said, coaching the team had become way more than just running a basketball program. After the first year, the girls had become his sports family.

Kerrie steele stretches as she warms up for the howard county special olympics girls basketball team practice on tuesday, march 6, 2018. Kelly lafferty gerber | kokomo tribune kelly lafferty gerber

“the compassion of the girls is so big,” he said. “the first thing they do at practices is ask me what I had for dinner or what I’m up to that night. When I coached at kokomo, it was just focused on basketball.”

Heather joines, whose daughter, kayce, is on the team, said ackison’s dedication and enthusiasm for both the sport and the girls is what makes him the perfect coach for the howard county special olympics team.Kelly lafferty if it weren’t for him, the program wouldn’t be the same, she said.

“kevin is so patient with them, joines said. “he just loves these girls, and the girls respect him. Coming to practice is the highlight of their week. They learn so much.”